- Dec 9, 2018 Links to Recent Articles from Teachers Corner Dec 9, 2018
- Dec 8, 2018 Begin Here: Transforming Conflict in Congregational Settings Dec 8, 2018
- September 2018
- Aug 12, 2018 A Brief Review of STEP : Scripture Tools for Every Person Aug 12, 2018
- Jun 12, 2018 An Exposition of John 15:1-17 Jun 12, 2018
- Apr 15, 2018 An Introduction to "Crossing the Line" by Michael Burns Apr 15, 2018
- Apr 14, 2018 The Teaching and Practice of Submission in the Life and Ministry of Jesus Apr 14, 2018
- Apr 14, 2018 "Let Each One Be Careful How He Builds" Apr 14, 2018
- Apr 5, 2018 The Teaching and Practice of "Sanctifying the Ordinary" in the Life and Ministry of Jesus Apr 5, 2018
- Mar 3, 2018 An Introduction to the New Testament Text Mar 3, 2018
- Feb 10, 2018 SALT Feb 10, 2018
- January 2018
- Dec 15, 2017 The Truth About Christmas Dec 15, 2017
- Oct 24, 2017 A Reflection on the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation Oct 24, 2017
- Sep 3, 2017 What Should I Do To Become a Christian Teacher? Sep 3, 2017
- July 2017
- Jun 25, 2017 The Sinner's Prayer Jun 25, 2017
- Jun 24, 2017 Teachers' Subcommittee Report on "Love Your Enemies" Jun 24, 2017
- Apr 28, 2017 YADA': The Unique Heart of True Christianity Apr 28, 2017
- Feb 21, 2017 Teaching the Importance of Women Teaching Women Feb 21, 2017
- Feb 21, 2017 Including the Context of Redemptive Grace in our Teaching and Preaching Feb 21, 2017
- Feb 13, 2017 Teaching the Old Testament Genres Feb 13, 2017
- Feb 2, 2017 Salt Feb 2, 2017
- Jan 24, 2017 Discerning God's Will by Andy Fleming Jan 24, 2017
- November 2016
- Oct 30, 2016 Huldah: the Woman Who Inspired a Nation to Repent Oct 30, 2016
Stephen F. Staten — Chicago, Illinois, USA
When left to their own devices, conflict and lingering problems can be extremely costly to the wellness, growth, and finances of a church congregation. It costs little or nothing to pursue concerns before they escalate. Ideally, there are capable representatives within the church body who can offer guidance, as well as some understood local practices for helping conflicted parties be in their best form and minimize the need for more expensive help.
Much of the foundation for conflict resolution in congregational life is grounded in the Old Testament’s dictate for the use of competent third party guides, the requirement for impartial investigations and the pursuit of justice, although Christ’s Sermon on the Mount significantly upgraded the call for forgiveness and reconciliation. It is being suggested that church leaders do as Moses did—set up wise, understanding, respected and impartial representatives to run point, on matters in their local tribe
(Dt. 1:9-18, 1 Cor. 5:5).
In the Old Testament, a problem handler might be a tribal leader, a priest, a king or other dedicated officials (Dt. 1:15, 21:5, 1 Kings 3:16-28, 2 Chr. 19:4-11). According to their mandate, the figure must not be a party to the concern itself, have skin in the game in terms of the outcome of a matter, or be perceived as being prejudiced towards one party. The primary goal of processes was to seek “justice and justice alone” (Dt. 16:20) with the general hope that parties would be satisfied with the outcome and/or the fairness of their hearing (Ex. 18:23).
The words concern and problem are used here in a broad sense to refer to the following: conflicts over sin/offense, unsatisfactory feelings with respect to an unmet need, an unresolved dispute/grievance, difficult relational dynamics, or a contest over competing values. It is important to identify which of these are present, and if there are more than one, so that the guiding intermediary can start from the best position.
It is important to establish two crucial practices. First, it is often the case that one party usually feels the problem more than the other. According to Jesus, the subject of a complaint, innocent or not, should be proactive in clearing up a matter (Matt. 5:22-23). Second, if the concern is a sin, then there must be witnesses to the perceived offense in order to utilize the simple path prescribed by both Moses and Jesus in Dt. 19:15-18 and Matt. 18:15-17. Witnesses to the offense are to be vetted because their testimony matters. If a matter has become one person’s word against another it is no longer a Matthew 18 issue—it is a relationship to be mediated or a grievance for arbitration.
The following recommendations for the third party problem-solvers and peacemakers are meant for more difficult situations, where actual witnesses don’t exist or are viewed as party to the conflict. A reasonable way to proceed is for the congregation’s leadership to deputize someone to be the third party facilitator, with the agreement of the disputing parties, and with the possibility of the third party facilitator continuing on as mediator or arbitrator.
If you are a church leader or a church member needing to engage in a process of conflict resolution in your congregation, here are some first steps you can take:
1.Propose an Opening Process. The facilitator will assume responsibility for gathering the concerned parties and assimilating them into a mutually agreeable process for improving general clarity. This includes coming up with a safe location, ensuring everyone knows who will be in attendance and why (parties, witnesses, advocates, other resources). The facilitator should speak to the main parties in order to agree upon the topics to be discussed, then release an agenda of no more than three to five general topics. Parties should have options available to them to ensure that the sessions are agreeable. It should be communicated that the upcoming meeting is not intended to resolve the matter, which takes pressure off of everyone.
2. Gather Parties to Obtain Clarity. The facilitator should begin with warm words of hope and prayer, and then guide the first discussion to obtain helpful background history. He should then discuss the agreed upon topics and reframe them in the most useful and least offensive language. Future sessions can then make use of the increasingly clear picture, which usually comes into better focus as progress is made. The facilitator seeks to understand and record each party’s felt interests, makes a timeline and records personal observations. There is no pressure to solve the matter in this session. The goal is to obtain an integrated perspective of the issues and to inspire confidence in future resolution.
3. Determine the Roadmap. The facilitator is now ready to make a few decisions. First, he must decide if the clarified matter requires mediated relationship, arbitration, a separate moderation process or a combination of these options. Second, the facilitator is ready to determine if he is competent to proceed, or needs to form an assisting team, or must turn this matter over to a more qualified third party. Third, the facilitator should now identify everyone who will take part in the process, obtain their consent to continue, and determine what their roles related to the matter are, as well as review everyone’s schedules and general availability.
4. Preparing the Parties. In many cases, even those not requiring mediation, the parties will be relationally strained. Even secondary parties are sometimes caught in the crossfire. It is recommended that difficult problems be accompanied by spiritual and emotional guidance. Two resources are Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a free PDF workbook that I wrote, entitled Preparing for Mediation.
5. Mediate Before You Moderate. Do not attempt to resolve an issue of doctrine, decision-making or preference of worship styles, etcetera, without first repairing a relationship which has been broken over those issues. It is more straightforward to solve a problem when two parties are thinking alongside each other. Two examples of moderation are in Acts 6:1-7 and Acts 15:1-35. Moderation uses representation and reasonableness to negotiate and address needs (such as food distribution) and values (such as obligations for Gentile believers). This subject is beyond the consideration of these pages; however, it is worth reemphasizing that moderation of problems is very difficult to accomplish when there are unresolved feelings between the parties.
6. Mediation and Arbitration. The difference between Christian mediation and arbitration is more evident near the end of their processes. Mediation aims to reconcile the relationship, and arbitration is about deciding an outcome; sometimes they occur concurrently. In both cases the third party focuses on creating the atmosphere for parties to give voice to their views — he draws out and listens, reframes, and nudges the parties. Private caucus is used to address topics deemed too risky for group discussion.
Below is a list of the kinds of things which typical conflict resolution specialists strive to accomplish:
Mapping Dynamics—in which we discuss the conflict in its historical context, relationship dynamics, et cetera.
Recognizing Each Party’s Interests—sometimes hidden drivers include unmet needs, respect/honor, hopes, fears, et cetera. A facilitator will draw these out when the parties are feeling safe, either privately or during a mediation.
Obtaining Responsibility — throughout the process, it is important to seek appropriate expressions of lessons learned, owned responsibility, sympathy, appropriate defense, meaningful mea culpa and healing words—wherever appropriate.
Explore Outcomes—forgiveness, various types of reconciliation, and negotiated steps for improved dynamics.
Closure—the parties create written statements, including lessons for a better future. Determine who needs to hear of the outcome. Prayer. Planned follow up.
Stephen F. Staten is the Founder and an Organizational Health Consultant at Bridging International.
Reconciliation, Coventry Old Cathedral. In 1995, fifty years after the end of The Second World War, this sculpture by Josephina da Vasconcellos was given by Richard Branson as a token of reconciliation. An identical statue has been placed in the Peace Garden at Hiroshima on behalf of the people of Coventry. Both statues remind us that, in the face of destructive forces, human dignity and love will triumph over disaster and bring nations together in respect and peace. © Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
by Gordon Ferguson -- Dallas, Texas, USA
If you have the world's most important message and you want to get it to the most people, how do you do it? Jesus had that conviction, and he had that concern. However, most Bible readers make some very erroneous assumptions about the ministry methods of Jesus. For years I was one of those people. I was very impressed with the times the Master Teacher worked with large crowds. I thought about how great it was for him to have exercised such magnetism that he was able to attract thousands at one time.
And yet, Jesus spoke to the crowds more as a means of training his apostles and other future evangelists (such as the seventy-two) than to "convert" the crowds. Of course, he was vitally interested in sharing God with those multitudes, but he wasn't naive enough to suppose that teaching in those large groups was going to really do the job of changing their lives. He realized that a more individualized approach was going to be necessary, and he was preparing some very special men to provide just that approach.
How We Learn Spiritual Truths
Most of what we learn in life is learned by OJT (on-the-job-training). We watch big brother tie his shoes, and then we imitate him. We watch Dad change the tire on the car, and we quickly know far more than if we had spent a couple of hours reading the manual. Becoming a carpenter is a process: a journeyman repeatedly shows an apprentice how to do carpentry. Just about everything we learn in the early years of our lives is learned in this manner, as is most of what we learn in the later years. It is the fastest and easiest way and in many cases the only way to learn. Nowhere is this principle more important than in learning spiritual truths. Discipling is all about learning from someone else as they are following Jesus.
As we study the Scriptures, we see that there can be no "loner" Christians. We play an absolutely essential role in each other's lives. The gospel cannot be spread effectively without the human demonstration at the heart of it, nor can those who accept it be brought to maturity without those relationships (Matthew 28:19-20).
The Bible alone is sufficient to reveal the content of the truth to man, but to grasp its power, we must read it both in black and white (pages) and in black, white, brown, red, and yellow (people). Can you see the point here? Discipleship has not been tried and found wanting; it has simply been found difficult and not often tried. However, when it is put into practice, lives change radically, and others are drawn to that magnet of visible change. Discipling works! And it is all that works! It was and is, without question, the plan of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world.
The Plan of the Master
Years ago, when I was first learning about discipling, I read a very helpful little book entitled The Master Plan of Evangelism. Coleman shows quite conclusively that the Master's method was men, plainly and simply. He poured his life into men, especially the Twelve, and when he returned to heaven, he left them to evangelize the world. They very effectively carried out his mission because they followed the same plan of pouring their lives into the lives of others, who repeated the same process over and over and over.
Christ's purpose was never to personally convert the masses, for in a physical body he was limited to one place at one time. However, through his spiritual body, the church, he could be everywhere at once. The masses are converted one by one. As I shared my faith yesterday with a young couple in a restaurant, disciples all over the world were doing the same. And as I slept last night, members of Jesus' body were carrying out his mission all over the world. Yes, the plan of Jesus was certainly the master plan!
The basics of his plan were as follows. First, he called men to follow him (Mark 1:14-18). Second, he kept men with him in order to train them and later send them out to share his message (Mark 3:14). Third, the training process included practical assignments, for we truly learn and retain only that which we practice. Finally, Jesus gave his life for what he had taught. Until we have something worth dying for, we have nothing worth living for.
After Jesus had been resurrected from the grave, he spent forty days preparing his trained men for the coming of the kingdom and the task of spreading it all over the world. He then ascended back to heaven, leaving these few ordinary men with the extraordinary task of being (not just preaching) Jesus to the world. As Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5:20, "We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us." Jesus' method was to pour his life into men, and once they were fully trained, they would be like him (Luke 6:40). Having been thus discipled, they were able to "go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). It was a simple plan with a high price tag of a tremendous personal investment in training individuals -- but it worked. It remains the same simple plan, and the price tag is just as high. No other plan has ever worked, can ever work, will ever work. We either do it this way, or we fail miserably.
Reprinted from The Greater Houston Church Sunday Bulletin, January 21, 2018, No. 02
Photo credit: Carpenters: KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Tech. Sgt. Kalon Pang and Master Sgt. Cindy Dickson, instructors assigned to the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center on McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base, assemble a doorframe August 18, 2015, that will be used in a home building project. About a dozen military volunteers took part in the two-day Habitat for Humanity project here inside the organization's wood shop. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Mike R. Smith/Released)
by Michael Burns -- Roseville, Minnesota, USA
Conversations That Can Unite or Divide
Stories are incredibly important. Every person and group has a story. Stories help to shape and craft our identities even when we don’t realize it. The grand stories that shape our self-understanding and the way we view and interact with the world are often called meta-narratives. When it comes to groups and societies, these meta-narratives are passed down from generation to generation. The impact of embracing these meta-narratives can be felt by future generations even if they have lost all or part of the meta-narrative itself.
The Grand Story and Identity of God’s People
One example of an identity forming meta-narrative comes from the biblical text. Each generation of Israelite children heard and read the incredible story of the Passover. They thrilled as their parents and grandparents recounted the events that led their ancestors to the revelation that they were God’s special people. They marveled at all that God had done as he led them out from under the enslaving hand of Pharaoh. And this set their self-identity in stone. They were God’s people and would never again be slaves to anyone, regardless of circumstances that might seem to temporarily point to a different conclusion.
In John 8:32 Jesus challenges the identity created by the Passover meta-narrative. He implies that the children of Abraham need to be set free which elicits a series of protests and emotional responses. That response was, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone” (John 8:33). Any other group of people would likely not have taken such offense at the implication of being enslaved, especially when Jesus explains that he is speaking of the universal slavery to sin (John 8:34). But meta-narratives and their ensuing identities are powerful. These identities become deeply held and we cherish them without typically fully realizing how important they are. The Passover meta-narrative had cemented in the nation of Israel’s mind that they were God’s children. No matter what tough temporary circumstances they might face, like the occupation of their homeland by the Roman Empire, they were still God’s family and would never be slaves. Jesus challenged both of those dearly held foundational identifiers. The pushback and vitriol were palpable.
Conflict is Unavoidable
Whenever two people are involved relationally to any significant degree, conflict is virtually inevitable. In this context, conflict is simply the incompatibility between two or more perspectives. Conflict itself is not necessarily sinful. You can have conflict without overt sin. Conflict will happen. The difference is in how we handle that conflict. The danger, of course, is that most human conflict does lead to sin.
In fact, it will happen often in a family of churches like ours. The more diverse a group is socially, historically, and culturally, the more opportunities there will be for conflict. We will have different perspectives, experiences, cultural expectations, history, preferences, and so on. This will be a constant challenge to our unity, especially when difficult subjects such as race and culture are being discussed.
Yes, conflict will happen. But when that conflict involves pushing up against one or more meta-narratives, that conflict can get passionate, and negatively so, rather quickly. That’s when conversations and even relationships can start to break down.
Healthy Families Talk
By way of example, let’s say that a Bible talk group sits down to discuss an incident that has been in the news involving a white police officer and a young man of color, resulting in the tragic death of the young man. As the group begins their conversation, conflict quickly erupts. Some in the group identify with the police officers and are prone to trust them and take their side without much in the way of questions. Others may or may not realize it, but somewhere deep down, they don’t trust police forces inherently. Even though we have a room full of disciples of Jesus Christ, tensions rise and before you know it there is a heated debate. Within twenty minutes, factions have formed, divisions have arisen, and hard feelings have developed. What’s even more pronounced and problematic is that these divisions are often (though not always) along racial or ethnic lines.
In situations like this, what often happens is that an awkward fear develops in one or both groups and they determine that the best solution is simply never to talk about these matters again within the body. This is deeply problematic. Healthy families talk. In fact, healthy families can talk about virtually anything. The degree to which there are off-limits or taboo subjects is the degree to which a dysfunction is bound to develop in that family.
Going Below the Surface
Here’s the real problem. In many situations, the different meta-narratives that we have lead to sharp disagreements. But we tend to not recognize that it is these underlying identity-forming stories that have led to our very different perspectives and resulted in severe conflict. Because of that, we stay at the level of the surface conflict and never get to the roots of it.
Let’s go back to the Bible talk group and see how this plays out. Some probably grew up in a middle class, predominantly white environment like mine where the police force was always presented as a positive thing. Every year we would have “Officer Friendly” come to our school and spend time connecting with the students. We looked forward to seeing police officers in town because they would hand out baseball cards to the kids. We were always told that they were the good guys; they would save us and help us if we ever needed it. This is why so many defend and support police officers before they may even know the specifics of a case. They just trust them naturally. That was my meta-narrative and many of you may identify with that. It formed a specific aspect of my worldview and identity in relation to those that are given the responsibility “to protect and serve.”
My wife is African-American and grew up with a very different community meta-narrative. The roots of many police forces, especially in the deep South where her family migrated North from, were as slave patrols. After slavery, those forces morphed into police forces, but they often had the objective of keeping black community members “in their place.” The lines of justice were frequently blurred and they often intimidated, brutalized, and terrorized the black communities. So, the meta-narrative formed that policemen were not a group that could be automatically trusted. They were to be rightly feared and meta-narratives like this are powerful and do not easily go away. They are passed down as wisdom from generation to generation. Even if a group is removed from the original context, the story and worldview often remain in place. And events that might seem like unfortunate, isolated incidents to those from one meta-narrative, serve as powerful reinforcements of the negative image for those from a different meta-narrative.
It can be incredibly destructive if we are unable to get down to that level of understanding one another in our church life. When we stay at the surface level of conflict, we simply argue. We waste our breath trying to convince one another but will very rarely be able to succeed. It is like two people staring at a white wall, one with rose-colored glasses on and the other with blue glasses on, who insist on arguing about what the color of the wall is. They will never get anywhere if they focus on the wall and fail to recognize that they have on different-colored glasses.
That’s how it is with these meta-narratives. We must go beyond the conflicts and seek to understand each other. Ask deep questions. Try to comprehend not just what a person believes or what they perceive, but why. They may not even fully grasp their own meta-narrative at first. There are many members in my wife’s family that were raised with an inherent mistrust of authority figures like the police but have little idea of why or where that fear comes from.
This is not taking sides on an issue or any specific incident involving police. If you’re focused on that, you’ve missed the point of this article. That was simply a relevant illustration to help us understand the powerful forces at work that can weave conflict into our relationships. The next time you find yourself in conflict with a brother or sister over a serious matter of this nature, don’t stay at the surface level of the conflict. Go deeper. Ask questions. Hear one another. Find out what some of their identity forming meta-narratives are (and we all have many). We may not ever fully agree on everything, but we can at least start to understand the different perspectives that others may hold, and we may learn a lot more about ourselves. When we understand one another’s meta-narratives, their perspectives start to make a lot more sense and we often feel empathy and a desire to reconcile rather than pull away or continue the conflict.
Practical Steps Forward
Here are some practical steps to help us begin to discover and navigate the waters of the meta-narratives of others. First, I have a big warning though. Don’t attempt to do this with others until you have examined your own meta-narratives and presumptions. Only then can you have a reasonable chance of understanding and empathizing with others.
1. When a conflict occurs, don’t focus on the “what,” become curious about the “why”.
2. Ask as many questions as you can to respectfully pull out someone’s background and story, where they might be coming from and why they see the world the way they do. Some sample questions from the above example involving responses to the police might be:
a. Do you think you tend to automatically give the benefit of the doubt to police or official government versions? Why do you think that is?
b. Do you think you tend to automatically mistrust police and people in authority? Why do you think that is?
c. What has been the past experience of yours or previous generations in your family with police officers in the past?
d. Do you think you have had any pre-conceived notions or beliefs about those in power or the underdogs in society that might influence your thinking?
3. Everyone’s worldview makes sense to them given their meta-narratives, so seek to understand as much as you can about a person’s views from the perspective of their meta-narratives rather than your own.
4. Listen to other’s story without comment, objection, or rebuttal. You are trying to learn and understand not teach and educate at this moment.
5. Try to avoid the “whats” in a conflict until you have a really solid grasp of the other person’s “whys.”
6. Together you can examine, not the meta-narratives themselves, but the identities and presumptions that have resulted from them. Are they in sync with a kingdom worldview, a godly perspective of others and a biblical response?
7. Together, do either of you see that perhaps some of your identities formed by your meta-narratives need to change in light of the gospel? How do you go about that?
8. You may have to agree to disagree at times, but at least you now hopefully can better understand the perspective of your brother or sister and respect and understand their views rather than thinking that they are just “out of their mind”.
Proverbs 20:5 says that “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.” Our meta-narratives are certainly deep waters and when we take the time to learn our own and draw out those of others, we move one step closer to the kind of unity in Christ that God desires for his people. A willingness to examine your own meta-narratives and identities and those of others, won’t solve every problem but it is a very healthy step in the right direction.
Joey Harris -- Augusta, Georgia, USA
The STEP Bible (STEP stands for “Scripture Tools for Every Person”) is a free digital Bible software project run by the Bible and religious book publisher, Tyndale House. The underlying software powering the project is based on the popular open source SWORD Project, managed by The Crosswire Bible Society. Many volunteers, publishers, Bible societies and others contribute to the STEP Bible by volunteering time and by donating translations, tools, commentaries, interlinears, dictionaries and other resources to the project.
There is a vast array of easy-to-access tools for scholars as well as the average Bible reader like you or me. There are dozens of English translations and commentaries, in addition to dozens of ancient language versions (great for the scholars among us). You can easily research multiple translations in modern languages (including both the NIV and ESV as well as many others), mouse hover Hebrew/Greek/Aramaic original words behind the translations, definitions, cross references, commentaries, original language grammatical help, interlinears, and concordances in original languages as well as modern languages. I was very impressed with how easy it was to use and with the extremely organized and well-designed user screens. There is generous use of popups so that you remain on the screen you’re already working on as much as possible. You can easily look up every instance of a Greek or Hebrew word in both directions (e.g., every time the word “love” is used and the different Greek and Hebrew words translated as “love” in your English translation OR every time the Greek word “agape” is used in English (even when it’s not translated into English as “love”).
All of this is available not only online (and works fairly well on a smartphone and very well on tablet browsers), but there are also free, downloadable apps available for Microsoft Windows™ and Apple Macintosh™ desktop computers. Finally, you can download the entire project onto a thumb drive and distribute it for free to people without an Internet connection.
I highly recommend the STEP Bible for all users, from those just beginning to study the Bible to veteran students and scholars of the Bible.
by Anna Hunsaker -- Denver, Colorado, USA
The disciples had just shared in the Passover Supper with Jesus. He humbly washed their feet and began to describe the events that would lead to his crucifixion. It is uncertain how much the disciples understood about what was about to take place, but Jesus proceeds to comfort them and prepare them for his coming death. Through the Last Supper, the washing of the feet, and Jesus’ words in John 14 about the way to the Father and the promised Holy Spirit, Jesus emphasizes the themes of unity, obedience, and love. This section of scripture, along with chapters 15, 16, and 17 continue in these themes and have become known as Jesus’ farewell discourse.
Jesus knew that He was about to leave the disciples, and he takes this time to prepare them “for their mission in the period of his absence between his resurrection and return.”1 It is clear from John’s gospel and the chapters of this discourse that Jesus prioritized both preparing and encouraging his followers. He wanted to inform them of how to remain in connection with Him, encourage them to not fall away, and tell them to continue in the love he had shown. Derickson says it this way: “Jesus was discussing his relationship to them as their source of life and as the one whose ministry would be continued through the Holy Spirit after his departure... the disciples responded with worry and sorrow, Jesus was reassuring and comforting them.”2 In John chapter 15:1-17, he uses an analogy of a vine and its branches to summarize these important lessons. In this passage, Jesus prepares his disciples for his time away from Earth by challenging them to remain in Him through obedience and love. By abiding in this way, Christians will bear the fruit of righteousness and salvation and maintain the relationships that bring glory to God.
The Analogy & Viticulture in Palestinian Culture
John 15:1-17 is centered around an analogy of a vine and its branches; and therefore, it cannot be accurately understood without a discussion of viticulture in Jesus’ day. It is not surprising that Jesus would use an agricultural analogy, since the “culture of the Bible was principally agrarian”3 and “viticulture was an integral aspect of first-century Judah’s culture.”4 This is evident from ancient documents, including the writings of Pliny and a contract for labor in a vineyard (from AD 280).5 Agrarian comparisons were also used often in Christ’s teachings recorded in the Gospel accounts (i.e. The Parable of the Sower, The Parable of the Weeds, The Parable of the Mustard Seed, The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.) Because agrarian practices were familiar, Jesus used them so that his audience would be more likely to understand his teachings.
Not only was viticulture familiar in Palestine, but vines and vineyards were a common motif in ancient religions. “Vines were often used to express fruitfulness, dependence, vital union, [and] pruning.”6 It was also “associated with the life of the people.”7 This comparison was frequent in Judaism as well. One evidence of this is that the image of a vine was stamped on coins minted by Jews during the Maccabean period.”8 The writers of the Old Testament also used this image often (Psalm 80:8-11, Isaiah 5:1-7, Jeremiah 2:21, Ezekiel 15:1-8, to name a few). It is clear that viticulture was familiar as a practice and a symbol in Jesus’ day, so it makes a wise choice of analogy for his teachings.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
This important portion of Jesus’ final discourse begins with the analogy of the vine and branches. In verse 14:31, Jesus ends one portion of the discussion with his disciples and says, “come now; let us leave.” There is no transition from this statement to John 15:1, which says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.” Because of this, there have been arguments about the structure, composition, and unity of this section of John. Some scholars believe that John 15-17 was a later addition to the text. Others argue that Jesus’ words to depart were the later addition. It is also possible that both verses were in the original text and that John excluded detail about where Jesus and the disciples went until later in his account (John 18:1). Ultimately, these questions are of little significance to the meaning of John 15:1-17. This passage relates to the themes of the rest of the farewell discourse and indeed the other writings of John (which will be elaborated further in this paper).
What is interesting to note is that if Jesus and his disciples left the house where the Passover supper took place, they may have walked past some vineyards that prompted Jesus’ analogy. Some scholars hold to this view. Others, however, believe that the vine and branches analogy “does not depend so much on the practices of viticulture in the days of either Jesus or John, but rather depends on the portrayal of Israel as a vine.”9 As mentioned earlier, vines and vineyards were used in many Old Testament writings, and especially in relation to Israel as a nation. This view makes the most sense, especially when we consider how Jesus begins his analogy.
In John 15:1, Jesus begins by saying, “I am the true vine.” The word “vine” would prompt the disciples to recall familiar Old Testament references to Israel as a vine. These include Isaiah 5:1-7; Jeremiah 2:21; Ezekiel 15:1-5, 17:1-21, 19:10-15; and Psalm 80:8-18. According to John Hutchinson, “in every instance when Israel in its historical life is depicted in the Old Testament as a vine or vineyard, the nation is set under the judgement of God for its corruption, sometimes explicitly for its failure to produce good fruit.”10 Israel as God’s vineyard/ vine was corrupted. It grew wild (Jer 2:21) or became useless (Ezek 15:1-5). With this in mind, Jesus declares that he is the true vine. According to Peter Bolt, “Israel, having begun as God’s choice vine had degenerated, and now Jesus announces that, in this new stage in salvation history, he replaces Israel.”11 He is the fulfillment of the type.
This fulfillment is made clear through the usage of the term “true” and the definite article in the sentence. First of all, the word “true” is the Greek alēthinos, which means real, genuine, or trustworthy. It is used nine times in the Gospel of John: “true light” (Jesus), “true worshippers,” “truly I tell you,” God is true, Jesus’ decisions are true, and his testimony is true. This term is also used twice in 1 John: “truth,” and in saying that God is true. Based on these references, John’s usage of this word seems to best mean “real” or “genuine.” Jesus is describing himself as the real vine in place of Israel. “The true vine is the one that is the highest, most ultimate realization, the perfect replacing the imperfect.”12 Through this imagery, Jesus establishes that he is the “messianic fulfillment of Old Testament imagery,”13 and that he would be the way to produce fruit and honor God.
Verse 1 continues with Jesus saying that his Father, God, is the vineyard gardener. This immediate reference to God is characteristic of the Gospel of John. Leon Morris says that “Father and Son are never regarded as separate entities each going His way regardless of the other. John sees them as working together.”14 Indeed, Jesus makes clear that His connection to the Father is essential and that he relies on God’s authority. As the vinedresser, God rules over the vine and the branches. Unlike in the Jewish mindset of Jesus’ day, “it is God, and not the religious leaders, who will prune and dress the vine and finally received the harvest.”15 This again shows that Israel was not the true vine or the gardener. God is the ultimate authority. Not only so, but he also cares for the vineyard. He “feels a deep interest in its growth and welfare.”16 God desires good for his people, his vineyard, which is why he established Jesus as the true vine.
God also creates a healthy vineyard by cutting off the branches that don’t bear fruit and pruning those that do. Before elaborating on the cutting and pruning, it is important to discuss who the “branches” are. The Calvinist view is that non-fruit bearing branches are “nonbelievers within the visible church who appear to be believers but are spiritually fruitless.” Another way of understanding this is that these branches profess faith but are not truly faithful. A differing view is that the unfruitful branches are believers who are initially cared for by God but are later disciplined by being cast out of the fellowship. According to this view, the disciplined believer still receives salvation. Based on the context, it is most likely that the branches refer to disciples. During this teaching, Jesus is speaking to the apostles, not the general crowds. Later in the passage, he tells them to remain in him, meaning that there would be the possibility of being “cut off.” He even warns them in John 16:1 to not fall away. Disciples, followers of Christ, have the risk of being cut-off from the vine.
The Greek word for “cut-off” is airō. This word means to cut-off or take away, lift, carry, remove, or destroy. It is used 23 times in the Gospel of John. Eight of those times it is used to mean “lift up,” while the other thirteen times have the meaning: “take away.” Because “branches” refers to believers, the translation here is most likely “take away.” If there is no fruit, no evidence of belief, then the branch will be cut off from Christ. They will no longer be united with the true vine. (This will be expounded in the discussion of verse 6).
The followers that do bear fruit, on the other hand, will be pruned. The Greek word for prune is kathairō which means to cleanse, clear, or prune. It is only used in this passage of scripture but is a known vinicultural process. A vinedresser would remove dead or overgrown branches that were inhibiting growth. In the same way “God the Father, through loving discipline (cleansing, purging, purifying), removes things from the lives of believers that do not contribute to their spiritual fruitfulness.”20 These branches are not removed but are cleaned. The Adams Clarke Commentary says it this way, “The branch which bears not fruit, the husbandman taketh IT away; but the branch that beareth fruit, he taketh away FROM it...everything that might hinder its increasing fruitfulness.”21 God wants disciples to remain connected to Christ and to bear fruit.
What does it mean to “bear fruit”? There are varying views on this concept as well. The main debate is whether fruit refers to good works or converts to Christianity. According to most commentators (i.e. Matthew Henry, Leon Morris, Frank Pack, and Albert Barnes), fruit means good works or Christ-like characteristics because of the references to “fruit” elsewhere in the New Testament. Others, like Peter Bolt and Richard Choi believe that fruit-bearing means making disciples. Bolt references John 12:24 in which the kernel of wheat falling to the ground to produce a crop relates to the growth of the kingdom.22 Choi references the parable of the soils in which the growth of seed underscores “the gospel of preaching.”23 All of these are valid points, and “fruit” represents both character and making disciples in different parts of the New Testament. It seems most likely then, that bearing fruit in John 15:1-17 means both. BNN says it this way: bearing fruit means “to show by our lives that we are under the influence of the religion of Christ... also to live so as to be useful to others.”24 In other words, if one lives by the fruit of the Spirit, with Christ-like characteristics and good works, they will also influence the lives of others and help lead them to the salvation that Christ offers. Without the fruit of righteous living, the kingdom of God will not grow. This idea also relates to the pruning that Jesus talks about in verse 2. God cleanses the heart so that good works can be produced.
After expressing this, Jesus tells his disciples (in verse 3) that they are already clean because of what he has taught them. The word “clean” here is the same word used for “prune” in verse 2. As Jesus has been teaching the disciples, their hearts have been pruned. At the time of Jesus’ departure from Earth, they had already been prepared to bear fruit.25 This shows that Jesus is encouraging, not reproaching the disciples. He is telling them how they can continue on spiritually when he is gone: by remaining in him and in his word. The word of Christ is highlighted here because “there is a cleansing virtue in that word, as it works grace, and works out corruption.”26 By holding to Jesus’ teachings, the disciples would continually be pruned and prepared to bear fruit.
The concept of remaining in Jesus is brought to the forefront of the passage in verse 4. The word “remain” or “abide” is used 10 times throughout John 15:1-10, so it is clearly an important concept. Hutchinson says that because of the frequency of this command, “one can conclude that union and communion with Christ, as well as dependence on Him, are important in the vine illustration.”27 The word in Greek is menō and means “to stay” (as in to remain, live, dwell, abide) and occurs 122 times in the New Testament. Its uses in John include references to the Spirit remaining on Jesus, terms of physical location, remaining in Jesus (as in communion), holding to His teachings, belonging to God’s family, remaining guilt, and the Spirit being in the disciples. It is generally agreed that in the context of John 15, this term means to be in close connection with Christ through faith and obedience. Carl Laney says it this way: “To ‘abide’ is to maintain a vital, life-giving connection with Christ, the vine, the Source of life.”28 Pack’s definition adds to this. He says that to “abide means being loyal to Christ, faithful to his commands.”29 Obedience and faith are important to the concept of loyalty, and loyalty allows one to maintain a committed relationship.
Jesus expands on this line of teaching in the verses 5-8. Verse 5 is a “Johannine repetition”30 in which concepts from verse 1-2 are repeated and specified (a technique that John uses throughout his writing). Jesus is the vine and the disciples are the branches, and they will only bear fruit as they remain in Him. The teaching then goes a step further by Jesus saying that “apart from me you can do nothing.” This is the “why” behind the command to abide in Christ. “The Christian is totally dependent on Christ for his spiritual life and achievements.”31
This leads to the conditional statement that if one does not remain in Jesus, if they live apart from him, they wither and are thrown into the fire (verse 6). This verse expands on verse 2a and makes evident that the unfruitful branch is a disloyal Christian. Jesus is speaking to the disciples when he says: “if you do not remain in me...” He is not addressing non-Christians. Adams Clarke says it this way: “No man can cut off a branch from a tree to which that branch was never united.”32 This is a warning to those who are followers of Christ; if they pull away from Jesus (if they stop depending on and obeying him) they are removed. This is not a forceful removal by God but a choice of the person. In viticulture, branches that wither eventually fall away from the vine on their own. It is at the end of the season that these dead branches would be removed and burned.33
The Greek word for “burned” in this text is kaiō, which means to cause to burn, kindle, or light or to consume with fire. It is used 13 times in the New Testament, and twice in John (in this passage and in reference to a burning lamp). It is also a term found in Ezekiel 15:1-5 in which the “useless” branch of a vine is burned as fuel. This is likely the passage Jesus is referencing when making this analogy in verse 6. Those who pull away from Christ become useless. They no longer bear fruit because “apart from [Jesus they] can do nothing.” Disconnection from the vine preludes unfruitfulness which leads to being “thrown into the fire.” This is likely a reference to judgement34 or the “fires of Hell.”35 Although some argue that these fires are only earthly discipline,36 the practice of gathering branches and burning them was an end of harvest event. At the end times, when Jesus returns, those not connected to him will not be saved. Acts 4:12 says of Jesus that “salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” Jesus set out this warning to his followers because he wants them to remain connected to him: the way of salvation.
He repeats the conditional phrase: “if you remain in me” in verse 7, but this time he adds “and my words remain in you.” In order to be in close relationship with Christ, one must remember and live by his words. Although briefly mentioned here, Jesus expounds on obedience in verses 9-17 (which will be covered later in this paper). Verse 7 continues with the result of the condition. If one remains in Jesus and keeps his words, they can ask whatever they wish and it will be done.” Most commentators agree that these things asked for are not any and every prayer. God is not a genie bending to our every wish. Rather, the thought here is that when one abides in Christ, their connection to him guides their asking. Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament describes how branches in Christ “become united to him in all our interests, and have common feelings, common desires, and a common destiny with him.”37 In connection with prayer, Morris says, “When the believer abides in Christ and Christ’s words abide in him then he lives as close to Christ as well may be. Then his prayers will be prayers that are in accord with God’s will and they will be fully answered.”38 When a person abides in Jesus and lives by his words, the overflow of their heart will naturally lead them to desire what He desires, and they will ask for that.
What does God desire? Jesus answers this in verse 8: bearing much fruit and showing oneself to be a disciple. This means that discipleship and fruitfulness (good character and evangelism) go hand in hand. It is also a process. Jesus here is still speaking to his disciples and says that they will demonstrate their discipleship by their continual growth. Morris says, “discipleship is not static, but a growing and developing way of life. Always the true disciple is becoming more fully a disciple,”39 and this brings glory to God.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.”
It would seem that this section of scripture begins a new thought or teaching from Jesus, but it is a continuation of the vine analogy. It turns to love and obedience as an explanation of the imagery.40 Jesus begins this further explanation by first paralleling his previous teaching. Verse 9a speaks of the Father, Jesus, and the disciples, which parallels the gardener, true vine, and branches of verse 1. Then 9b speaks of abiding, which we know is one of the main themes of verses 1-8. Jesus is clearly connecting verses 9-17 with the vine analogy.
Not only is this section a continuation from earlier verses, but it also elaborates on them. Jesus explains how to be branches that abide in the vine and extends the concept of unity. The theme of unity is brought to the forefront from the beginning of this section. Verse 9 says, “as the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.” God, Christ, and disciples are united in love. “Believers are drawn in to a chain of love, into the intimacy and oneness that characterizes Jesus’ own relationship with his heavenly father.”41 Remaining in Jesus means remaining in his love, and it all starts with God’s love extended to Him. “Discipleship rests upon the Father’s love.”42 This love is the foundation and inspiration for all actions that flow from a follower of Jesus.
How do we remain in this chain of love? Jesus explains in verse 10 that the answer is obedience. “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love.” The word “keep” in Greek is tēreō which means to keep; guard; mark attentively to or obey; keep strictly; preserve. In the times that John uses this term in his Gospel, it most often means to obey or keep commandments. “It is simple obedience. It is when a man keeps Christ’s commandments that he abides in Christ’s love.”43 One is reminded of John’s message in 1 John 2, which says that we know God and are complete in his love if we keep his commands. In verse 6 of 1 John 2 he says, “whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” John may have been recalling Jesus’ final discourse when penning this letter because just as he says in verse 6, so Jesus teaches in chapter 15 verse 10b. The disciples are to obey him and remain in his love just as he obeys God and remains in his love. The phrase “have kept” here is in the perfect tense which emphasizes Jesus’ completed obedience to the Father.44 Jesus did not expect his disciples to do anything that he had not already done. “Just as (and ‘because’) Jesus fulfilled the commands of the Father and thus abides in the Father’s love, so too must the disciples of Jesus fulfill Jesus’ commands if they are to abide in his love.”45 This is not to say that Jesus expects perfection from his followers (he knows our weaknesses),46 but that he expects the continual decision to obey and abide.
The continual obedience in love and abiding in Christ results in his joy, a complete joy. “Complete” in the Greek is plēroō meaning to fulfill; fill up; influence; complete; consummate; and accomplish. Most of John’s usage of this word is in relation to fulfillment of scripture or a full measure of some emotion. The word joy, as used in John, is emphasized in Jesus’ final discourse. It is only used in 3:29 previously in this Gospel. This shows Jesus’ desire to encourage his followers as he prepared them for his death on the cross. In this instance, he connects joy to obedience and abiding in him through love. Joy will not come through things of this world. Matthew Henry says that “worldly joys are empty, soon surfeit but never fully satisfy.”47 Even though obedience is not easy (in following parts of the farewell discourse, Jesus describes persecution to come), it is worth it. Half-heartedness and hypocrisy would not do. “To be halfhearted is to get the worst of both worlds,”48 and “the joy of the hypocrite is but for a moment, but the joy of those who abide in Christ’s love is a continual feast.”49 Followers of Christ would have to decide if they would obey him no matter the circumstances. If they would, he promised fullness of joy, an internal joy that is everlasting.
The motivation for the decision to obey and receive joy is again rooted in love. Jesus explicitly commands his disciples in verse 12 to love one another. The chain of love (Father-Jesus-Disciples) in verse 9 is “complete in 15:12 when the disciples learn that the love that binds God to Jesus, and Jesus to his followers, is also to be manifest in their relationship with each other.”50 Love for one another is what ties this passage together. We abide in Christ, who abides in God, by loving him. And that love is shown through obedience. Obedience requires action which is only made possible through loving interactions with others. Again, as in verse 10, Jesus lays out a command that he has already fulfilled. “Love each other as I have loved you.” He elaborates on his type of love in verse 13, saying that his great love is that of laying down his life. “To John’s way of thinking, the power of such love is utterly compelling.”51 The love that he was about to show on the cross was to be their motivation and example in loving one another. Fernando Segovia says, “this specific command of Jesus to the disciples is grounded directly on the mode of Jesus’ love for them.”52 Love for one another ties John 15:1-17 together, but that love for one another is rooted in the ultimate love of Christ.
Jesus also shows love to his followers by calling them “friends” (verses 14-15). The Greek word filos means one who is loved, dear, and devoted; or friend. John uses the term to describe friendship. It is a word that has lost some of its meaning in the English language. According to Frances Gench, “In the Greco-Roman world, friendship was a much-discussed and highly-esteemed relationship. Our own, often quite casual use of the language of friendship does not do justice to it.”53 In other words, this pronouncement that disciples are Jesus’ friends is special. “It is a breath-taking announcement, unique to John: Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, the very revelation of God’s own self, calls us friends.”54 It is becoming more and more evident through this passage that the encouragement and confidence that the Christians needed after Jesus’ death is relationship.
Followers of Christ are brought into loving friendship through his choosing. In Jewish culture, a student usually chose the Rabbi that they wanted to follow and learn from. In the case of Christ, however, he chose his pupils. “It did not begin on their side: You have not chosen me, but I first chose you.”55 This shows the incredible favor and grace of Jesus and that, once again, he has gone first in that which he expects of his followers. He chose them and expected them to choose him back and to do what they were appointed for. The Greek word “appointed” in verse 16 is tithēmi meaning to place; to lay; to set or appoint; to assign; and commit. In John’s Gospel, it is most often used in reference to the phrase “lay down one’s life.” Based on the context of this verse, however, it seems likely that the word “appointed” is appropriate. Jesus chose his followers and assigned them a task: to bear lasting fruit.
As referenced earlier in this paper, bearing fruit can be applied to righteous character or evangelism. In this instance, it seems that the latter is best. Jesus tells the disciples to go and bear fruit. “Going” is an external action, not an inner state of being. He had also just mentioned, in verse 15, that he made the Father’s will known to them. In other words, “the treasure of the gospel was committed to them.”56 They knew the message of Christ, and they were about to understand it even better through his death and resurrection. Because of this, Jesus appointed them for the mission of spreading the gospel. “The emphasis now is upon their going out and bringing his words of salvation to men.”57 The fruit of evangelism is lasting because it leads others to eternal life.
Jesus promises that, by following their appointed mission, the disciples could pray in his name and receive what they ask for (verse 16). This parallels verse 7: “ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” According to Bolt, this “must be understood within the context of Jesus’ mission and the promised fruit-bearing...God will answer requests directed by Jesus’ mission so that fruit might come.”58 By connecting to the mission of Christ, one will pray with the desires of that mission, and God will be glorified by answering. In all of this, the chain of love continues. Christians love others by sharing the salvation message of Christ, which is in obedience to Christ. This keeps the disciples connected to and brings others into connection with Jesus, who always abides in the Father.
This is why Jesus’ final statement in this section is an appropriate conclusion. “This is my command: Love each other.” Love is the connecting piece. It connects disciples to one another, to Jesus, and to God. Jesus’ love is the example and motivation for bearing fruit. Love is obedience. Love is the way to abiding in Christ and bringing others into the vine. “No other duty of religion is more frequently inculcated, nor more pathetically urged upon us, by our Lord Jesus, than that of mutual love.”59 Jesus knew that the message of love is what his disciples need to cling to at the time of his death and departure from Earth.
John 15:1-17 recounts an essential message from Jesus to his followers in preparation for his death, resurrection, and ascension to Heaven. He challenged them to remain faithful to Him through love and obedience. “Jesus’ message to His disciples was that, though He was departing, the Father was still caring for them. To bear the fruit God intended, they needed to continue to rely on Jesus and to respond to his instruction.”60 He called them to produce fruit, through “the vital union with Christ,”61 of good character and making disciples, in order to bring glory to God. Ultimately, he showed them the importance of relationship through the unifying love of Father, Son, and one another.
This message from Christ, all those years ago, still rings true today. It was not only a message to the apostles who were with Jesus the night before his crucifixion, but it is for all those who are brought into connection with the true vine by becoming disciples. As Christians, we need to consider the text in light of how it applies to us. John 15:1-17 focuses on ideas and themes that are not restricted to a certain culture or time period. Viticultural analogies can still be understood today, and the concepts of obedience and love in action transcend time and place.
With that being said, how does John 15:1-17 apply to me personally? I am a follower of Christ, so I must heed these words, especially since they were addressed to His followers. The command to “love each other” is the biggest lesson for me. I don’t typically struggle with loving God. I enjoy spending time with him and rarely get angry with him. With imperfect people, on the other hand, I am easily selfish with my time and effort. Frustration or anger can flare up quickly with others as well. It is convicting to understand more deeply that connection with Jesus requires love for others.
At the same time, it is important to note that connection with Jesus also allows us to love others. “We have as necessary and constant a dependence upon the grace of the Mediator for all the actions of the spiritual and divine life.”62 In this very passage, Jesus tells us that we can do nothing apart from him (verse 5). This means that I can love other people because of the power and love of Christ. The fruit of love will only be produced as I rely on Christ, and that fruit will in turn bring deeper connection to Him as my vine.
I want to be a branch that is bearing fruit from the nutrients that the true vine provides. This means continuing to spend time reading the Bible and praying in order to know the commands of God to be obeyed. It means spending time with God to be filled up by him. When he is my strength and source of direction, producing the fruit of loving others will be more natural. I also want to bring others into connection with the true vine. This means loving others enough to share the Gospel message about Christ. Teaching about Jesus helps others develop their own relationship with him. Others can be grafted into the vine as I have been. They can come to abide in Christ and be saved from the fire. I am convicted to take seriously the mission which Jesus has appointed me. Ultimately, I am moved by this passage to love others. Not only does love have salvation potential, but it brings glory to God.
The church can also grow in glorifying God through relationships. We live in a society that is all about “self.” Individualism runs rampant in the minds and actions of many. Despite technological connections, humans are more isolated than ever before. It is a problem that Jesus addressed in John 15:1-17 by emphasizing the opposite: unity and love. “The Johannine themes of mutual, self-giving love and the love of friendship are no less profound [today], with power to address our own deep hunger for community amidst the individualism, isolation, and transience that characterize much of modern, Western life.”63 It is God’s plan that the body of Christ be the physical hands of love that reach out to the hurting world. We can do a much better job of extending love to others. Hospitality is a great practical way to extend community to the lonely. Are we welcoming people into our homes? Are we inviting them to spend time with our families and friends? People long for connection, and the church can provide it! We can connect people with one another and to Christ.
In John 13:35, Jesus tells the disciples that everyone will know that they are his followers by their love for one another. The church can have great impact by its love for each other within the body of believers. Showing love helps keep each other connected to Christ. The apostles were with Jesus and one another for three years. They made mistakes, learned lessons, ate meals, and lived life together. It is likely that they felt like family. Are our church members living life together? Maybe we can’t spend an extended amount of time traveling together, but we can still develop close relationships. Through time spent and vulnerability in conversations, people can become more connected. Jesus wants his followers to not only be connected to him but to each other. “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”64 Deep, familial relationships will impact hearts both inside and outside of the church, and they will glorify God.
1Bolt, Peter, “What Fruit Does the Vine Bear? Some Pastoral Implications of John 15:1-8,” The Reformed Theological Review: 17, accessed April 26, 2018, EBSCOhost ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials.
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3Derickson, “Viticulture and John 15:1-6,” 34.
4Derickson, “Viticulture and John 15:1-6,” 44.
5Derickson, “Viticulture and John 15:1-6,” 44.
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7Pack, Frank, The Living Word Commentary: The Gospel According to John Part 11 (Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing Company, 1977), 72.
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9 Hutchinson, John C, “The Vine in John 15 and Old Testament Imagery in the ‘I Am’ Statements,” 70.
10Hutchinson, John C, “The Vine in John 15 and Old Testament Imagery in the ‘I Am’ Statements,” 67.
11 Bolt, Peter, “What Fruit Does the Vine Bear? Some Pastoral Implications of John 15:1-8,” 11.
12Hutchinson, John C, “The Vine in John 15 and Old Testament Imagery in the ‘I Am’ Statements,” 67.
13Hutchinson, John C, “The Vine in John 15 and Old Testament Imagery in the ‘I Am’ Statements,” 64.
14Morris, Leon, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: William B.Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971), 669.
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27Hutchinson, John C, “The Vine in John 15 and Old Testament Imagery in the ‘I Am’ Statements,” 64.
28Laney, J. Carl, “Abiding is Believing: The Analogy of the Vine in John 15:1-6,” 65.
29Pack, Frank, The Living Word Commentary: The Gospel According to John Part 11, 73.
30Pack, Frank, The Living Word Commentary: The Gospel According to John Part 11, 74.
31Pack, Frank, The Living Word Commentary: The Gospel According to John Part 11, 74.
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33Derickson, “Viticulture and John 15:1-6,” 50.
34Derickson, “Viticulture and John 15:1-6,” 37.
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38Morris, Leon, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John, 672.
39Morris, Leon, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John, 672.
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44Pack, Frank, The Living Word Commentary: The Gospel According to John Part 11, 75.
45Segovia, Fernando F, “The Theology and Provenance of John 15:1-17,” 123.
47Henry, Matthew, Complete Commentary on John 15, Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible (Complete).
48Morris, Leon, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John, 674.
49Henry, Matthew, Complete Commentary on John 15, Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible (Complete).
50Gench, Frances Taylor, “John 15:12-17,” 183.
51Gench, Frances Taylor, “John 15:12-17,” 183.
52Segovia, Fernando F, “The Theology and Provenance of John 15:1-17,” 124.
53Gench, Frances Taylor, “John 15:12-17,” 182.
54Gench, Frances Taylor, “John 15:12-17,” 183.
55Henry, Matthew, Complete Commentary on John 15, Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible (Complete).
56Henry, Matthew, Complete Commentary on John 15, Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible (Complete).
57Pack, Frank, The Living Word Commentary: The Gospel According to John Part 11, 78.
58Bolt, Peter, “What Fruit Does the Vine Bear? Some Pastoral Implications of John 15:1-8,” 19.
59Henry, Matthew, Complete Commentary on John 15, Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible (Complete).
60Derickson, “Viticulture and John 15:1-6,” 52.
61Hutchinson, John C, “The Vine in John 15 and Old Testament Imagery in the ‘I Am’ Statements,” 65.
62Henry, Matthew, Complete Commentary on John 15, Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible (Complete).
63Gench, Frances Taylor, “John 15:12-17,” 184.
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Derickson, Gary W. “Viticulture and John 15:1-6.” Bibliotheca Sacra 153 (Spring 1996): 34-52. Accessed April 26, 2018. EBSCOhost ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials.
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Morris, Leon. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John.Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971.
Pack, Frank. The Living Word Commentary: The Gospel According to John Part 11. Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing Company, 1977.
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Anna Hunsaker grew up in the International Church of Christ in Charlotte, North Carolina and is incredibly grateful for how her parents and community raised her. She moved to Denver three years ago and has been working as an administrator for the Denver Church of Christ but will be starting a teaching job in August. She is a proud member of the DCC Singles Ministry and is excited to be pursuing her Masters of Arts in Biblical Studies through the Rocky Mountain School of Ministry and Theology.
by Michael Burns -- Roseville, Minnesota, USA
In 2007, my wife and I moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, with our twelve- and four-year-old sons to lead the Fox Valley Church of Christ. Despite the idyllic scenery, small town charm, and loving church family, it was not all roses; especially not for our older son. I am what society has labelled “white” and my wife is what society calls “black.” One day our older son was confronted by another student who informed him, in “joke” form, that the difference between a bench and a black man is that a bench can support a family.
Not long after that, he went to sit by a friend at lunch in the cafeteria and was told by another boy that he had entered the “whites only” part of the lunchroom and needed to take his “nigger” self somewhere else. He was in a school of nearly 1,500 with fewer than ten black students and didn’t have many positive options available to him and talking to the school officials yielded little to nothing.
In the end, nothing much happened, and our older son struggled in that environment until 2012 when we finally moved to the Twin Cities and I began to serve as the Teacher in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Church of Christ.
What he, and to a lesser but still significant extent, my wife and younger son experienced in the community at large, was a sharp contrast to our experience in our family of churches, the International Churches of Christ. In fact, the racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity was the first thing that drew us into the Milwaukee Church of Christ where we were converted.
We have continued to love the ethnic and cultural diversity in our family of churches but along the way, we learned that this beautiful diversity has its challenges. The more varied and diverse a people are, the more difficult it will be to create and maintain unity. That’s a fact. And while we heard of and experienced little dustups or complaints over the years, for the most part what we saw and felt was this amazing and manifold kingdom of God that consisted of people of every tribe, language, and nation, so to speak.
But division is Satan’s specialty; and, like anything, cracks in our unity and diversity have started to appear over time. Not on the surface, of course. You can come any Sunday morning and see the same amazing mix of cultures. But in the day-to-day life of the community, tensions seemed to be rising.
As my wife and I have travelled across our fellowships we have learned that most disciples love their church and they love the kingdom of God. They love the ideal of being God’s one family of all nations, and they love their brothers and sisters.
But we also found that many of our brothers and sisters of color were grieved, and a part inside of them was in mourning; not all, but a definite majority. What I heard primarily was fear. Fear that the prejudices and inequities of the world had crept into our beloved church. They were bothered by the pattern of silence in the face of incidents of racial injustice that were playing out in the media. They were concerned at the perception of a mounting lack of representation of people of color in all levels of church leadership.
As I continued to listen, I heard a growing pattern of dissatisfaction in many churches about the cultural environment. People of color, particularly African American brothers and sisters, often felt that there was a dominant white culture in the church and that their voice and culture were either allowed only token input or not heard at all (although there are a few cases where the opposite is true). Many have expressed the feeling that they tend to feel welcome in the church as long as they “act white” and embraced expressions of white culture. And many have confirmed that even in our beloved fellowship they have experienced cases of prejudice or bigotry. Not to the level or degree of the world, but still, it is there.
I don’t think that we can ever end ethnic and cultural divisions, and institutions like racism in the world, nor is it prudent to even try. What we can do, however, is to address these issues openly and honestly in the family of God and to stand out like a bright light in a world of division and sectarianism.
Why talk about this? Imagine what would happen if my wife came to me today and requested that we have a heart-to-heart talk about some issues that she would like to address in our marriage. Rather than listening to her, though, I tell her, “No, we’re not going to talk about this.” She looks a bit taken aback, but before she can respond, I continue. “We have a great marriage; things are good. Why are you trying to mess that up?”
“Think of this biblically,” I go on. “The Bible makes it clear that we were once two separate people but when we came together in marriage, we became one flesh. That’s all there is to it,” I proudly state. “Why dredge up things from the past?”
She listens to me and then calmly says, “I want to talk about something from this morning.”
“Ahh,” I quickly blurt, “that’s the past!”
“Right now we are unified,” I continue, “because we are one. It’s great to be one. I love that we are one. That’s biblical truth. Nope, no argument there. No conversations needed. I think we’re good and we should just move along and enjoy our goodness.”
It probably will not take you a long time to figure out that if this was my actual response, the rest of the week is probably not going to be a pleasant one for me. You don’t get married, become one, and now the work is over and all that’s left is to preserve the perfect unity and oneness that you have achieved.
In the same way, imagine if a black brother or sister wanted to talk to me about what they have experienced in their multi-ethnic church, why they feel culturally marginalized at times, or the hurt they feel from what is happening in our country. What if I responded in that conversation the way I described speaking to my wife? What if I said, “Brother, why are you trying to cause division? There is just one race, the human race. The Bible is very clear on that. The only answer to racism is not to complain or see it as a boogey- man behind every bush. We are all one in Christ, so you need to repent of this divisiveness. God has already joined us together and there is no black or white.”
And imagine that, when my friend asks if it’s a conversation that we could have as a church and maybe even do some teaching on it, I respond by telling him that such conversations are pointless because they’re just going to dig up conflicting feelings and perspectives and divide our fellowship.
Yes, we are one in Christ. There is no question that there is great truth behind this and similar ideas, but if we leave it there, such beloved truths of God’s kingdom can quickly become empty platitudes.
The truth contained in those statements is that we are all one in Christ. That’s an undeniable biblical reality for those that have been immersed into his life. There is only the one, human race, say the Scriptures. But as in a marriage, this is the starting point. When God’s people seek to obey the Scriptures by being comprised of all nations and people groups, a difficult process has begun. What comes next is a lot of hard work. These little slogans that we toss out, like “There is just one race, the human race,” and “We should all be colorblind” often serve as conversation enders, not starters. If I responded to my wife with the idea that she shouldn’t bring up issues or try to work on our marriage because we are one, that would be flippant. It would twist a truth into an agent of stagnation. The same is true if we toss out platitudes when it comes to the topics of racism, race, and culture.
Here’s the rub: statements like “We are one” are true, but they only remain true if a lot of effort, honest conversation, and difficult changes are constant. The minute that that environment fades away is the moment that those statements cease to be true. Bringing up concerns and wanting to talk about them in an open and real way is not disruptive; it is the foundation for true unity and continued growth.
The fact is that being a family of all nations is central to the Gospel (Matthew 28:28-20; Galatians 3:7-9), so the idea that we won’t constantly need to address issues of racial unity and cultural inclusion is naïve at best and dangerous at worst.
There is no question that issues of racism, race, and culture have once again taken center stage in our society. These are issues that bring out deep passion and potential conflict in the world; and because disciples live in this world, they affect us, our mission, and our unity.
If we’re not careful and don’t address these topics biblically and with great love, patience, and grace, they could wind up ripping Christians apart. Every potential problem like this, though, can be a pitfall or a platform. It can be our undoing or an amazing opportunity to put the power and wisdom of the true gospel on display. It is encouraging that these conversations are now taking place in some locations. I am under no illusion that this book is the beginning of something. It is a continuation and it is a call for learning, understanding, and, most of all, open and honest discussion.
Michael Burns is a Teacher in the Minneapolis-St. Paul church of Christ. He is a graduate of Wesley Seminary of Indiana Wesleyan University (MA). He taught high school history in the central city of Milwaukee for nearly ten years. He is a national and international biblical teacher at churches and workshops. He is the founder and director of the Ministry Development and Training Academies centered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and serves as an instructor in Ministry Training Academies in Africa. He is the author of the twelve-volume C.O.R.E. Curriculum books. He married his wife, MyCresha, in 1997. They have two sons and reside in Roseville, Minnesota.
by Cynthia P. Fetherman -- Denver, Colorado, USA
"Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand."—Isaiah 64:8
Perhaps no analogy best exemplifies the spirit of submission as the molding of clay under the hands of the potter. In this paper, the teaching and practice of submission in the life and ministry of Jesus will be discussed. Submission will encompass several other names: obedience, subordination, allegiance, reverence, trust and self-denial. Submission is at the heart of discipleship. It acknowledges the lordship of Jesus over every aspect of life. The concept of submission involves relinquishing one’s individual rights in favor of another. It is only through complete submission that a follower of Jesus is able to open one’s heart so the Holy Spirit may be received and dwell in it. Partial submission is not an option for one who calls Jesus Lord.
Submission, self-denial, obedience and any other name by which this spiritual discipline is called requires progression. Spiritual formation will be viewed through transformation—from hard clay to a vessel fit for use under the guidance of God, the potter. As clay goes through several steps, so does the individual who yearns for the inner transformation promised by the prophet Ezekiel:
"I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God." – Ezekiel 11:19-20
Upon reading this paper, I hope the reader walks away knowing that total submission is indispensable to the Christian walk. The gift to be transformed from within is from God, as He gives the believer a new heart. But the practice of the spiritual discipline of submission puts the believer on the path of making it possible to receive that gift. Submission is not something obtained when someone becomes a Christian or a disciple of Jesus but a lifelong practice that paves the way for the transformation of the individual who is being changed from within-- from mere dust to a useful vessel under the hands of the Creator.
The Teaching and Practice of Submission
"If anyone wants to be My follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me and the gospel will save it." – Mark 8:34-35 (HCSB)
As a spiritual discipline, Thomas à Kempis (1955) defines submission as follows: “…but if we desire that God be among us, we must sometimes set aside our own will (though it seem good) so that we may have love and peace with others” (p.40).
Submission is servanthood. Submission is self-denial. It is obedience and disregard of one’s own will in favor of another with the goal of establishing peace. It is the pledge of allegiance to someone else. It is the essence of discipleship to Jesus Christ.
The word submission only occurs six times in the scriptures, yet underneath the entire story of the Bible lies the concept of submission. The closest Hebrew root for reference is יָד yâd, (yawd), meaning “to give the hand, to pledge the fidelity of the giver.” In the New Testament, the Greek root word of εὐλάβεια eulábeia, (yoo-lab'-i-ah), means, “reverence toward God, godly fear, piety.” It is also used in the context of ὑποτάσσω hypotássō, (hoop-ot-as'-so), “to subordinate… be under obedience.” Á Kempis (1955) notes:
"An old habit is not easily broken, and no man will readily be moved from his own will; but if you cling more to your own will or to your own reason than to the humble obedience of Jesus Christ, it will be long before you are a man illumined by grace" (p. 48).
Further, À Kempis (1955) speaks of Jesus’ example of obedience as:
"I made Myself the humblest and lowest of all men, so that you would learn to overcome your pride through My humility. Learn, therefore, you who are but ashes, to be humble for my sake; learn to break your own will and to be subject to all from the heart” (p.124).
I grew up playing with clay pots. Not every girl in my neighborhood wanted a set. But I did. I remember my mother coming home one day with a clear, plastic bag in her hand filled with used newspaper. I unwrapped them gently from the paper protecting them. They were brown, clay pots, shiny from the glaze and painted with flowers. They came with lids and a stove. They were beautiful, a little girl’s treasured possession, and I showed them to anyone who would pay attention. They eventually broke. I outgrew them as I entered adolescence but the memories of playing with them are remembered fondly. As I became a follower of Jesus later in life, my fascination of pottery was reignited as I read the scriptures. Obedience to God is the ultimate act of submission. As clay in the potter’s hands, we are to submit ourselves to the potter’s molding:
"Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?" – Romans 9:21
From creation, God has laid before man the choice of submission—obedience or disobedience. From the story of Adam and Eve to the nascent nation of Israel, submission has been presented as a choice between life and death.
"See, I Set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands… and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess." –Deuteronomy 30:13 (NIV)
From patriarchs to judges, kings to prophets, we see people called by God to submission.
Genesis 12:1-4—Abraham’s ready obedience testifies to his submissive spirit to God’s plans for him and his family
Judges 7:15—Gideon displays self-denial as he sets aside his fear and trusts in God’s deliverance
2 Samuel 7:18—David sets aside his plans and expresses gratitude for God’s guidance at a time in his life when he may be most tempted to assert his power as king over Israel and with the people favorably disposed towards his leadership
Isaiah 6:5-8—Isaiah surrenders to God’s plan for him despite his acknowledgement of his personal shortcomings
Jeremiah 1:4-10—Jeremiah submits to God’s appointment despite difficulty of his external circumstances
In the New Testament, submission is practiced and taught by Jesus. We see the radical call to submit to Jesus’ discipleship in John 12:24-26:
"Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me."
"Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all."—Mark 9:35
"In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything cannot be my disciple".-Luke 14:33
"Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me."—Luke 9:23
More than teaching about submission, subordination, allegiance and self-denial, Jesus lived it to the point of sacrificing His own life:
“'Abba, Father,'” he said, 'everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.'”—Mark 14:36
"… Christ Jesus, 'who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!'” -Philippians 2:5-11
Submission is at the heart of discipleship to Jesus. Beyond teaching about obedience, Jesus’ lifestyle was one of submission and obedience.
F.F. Bruce (1979) notes,
"The person who enlisted in His cause, He taught, would need to deny himself (34), i.e. abandon the attitude of self-centeredness, and take up his cross, i.e. be prepared to face martyrdom, …. He would have thus to be willing to lose his mortal life; and all this, for Christ’s sake and for the gospel (35), i.e. for the sake of spreading abroad the good news of the kingdom of God; for only in this way would he attain the true life, that of the age to come" (p. 1167).
"During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. And he learned obedience. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered…."—Hebrews 5:7-8
We see the practice of the spiritual discipline of submission in:
John 1:30-John the Baptist makes way for Jesus and acknowledges Him as the Messiah spoken of by the prophets and awaited for by Israel. Rather than keeping his band of followers, John the Baptist points them in Jesus’ direction.
John 3:30—John the Baptist tells his followers, “He must become greater. I must become less.”
Mark 14:36-Jesus surrenders to God’s plan for His death and crucifixion.
Luke 23:46-Jesus surrenders His spirit to God on the cross.
Submission in the Gospels
It seems odd to pick the parable of the prodigal son to talk about submission, but the story has elements that highlight a lack of it—self-centeredness, a lack of regard for others, irreverence towards authority and allegiance to one’s interests alone. Yet in the end, the story highlights the transformation which God is able to perform on the heart of one who takes the path of submission.
Jewish culture considered, "honoring your father and mother," a command of utmost importance. The beginning of the parable sees this command violated as the younger son asks for his portion of the inheritance. Moreover, Jesus’ audience was shaken from its cultural view of the younger son being the rightful heir (think: Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, David and Joseph over their older brothers). By highlighting the profligate ways of the younger son, Jesus’ audience is being asked to change their way of thinking.
As the younger son wastes away his inheritance, he reaches a point where his choice lands between starvation and going back to his father’s home, albeit in a different capacity. His internal dialogue in vv. 17-19 shows that, while his previous actions may have been to cut off his family ties (vv. 12-13), in his time of need, he recognizes that he is still his father’s son (emphasizing the father-son relationship in vv. 17-19). On his return journey, the son takes the path that would bring him home to his father. The younger son recognizes the condition by which he must present himself before his father—unworthy, capable only of being a hired servant, a sinner who has dishonored and severed his allegiance to his family. On this same path, the father meets the son and restores his position, regardless of how unworthy the son may be.
This story teaches us about the path—how the practice of the spiritual discipline of submission paves the way for God to meet us where we are transformed, not by anything we do but by how the Father treats us. “It’s not the disciplines themselves but God at work through them that enables us to love him and love our neighbor more and more” (Johnson, 2017, p.79).
In the practice of spiritual disciplines today, we ought to develop an awareness of our own unworthiness as we make our way back to God. We are sinners, servants who can only do our jobs. Yet in practicing submission and obedience, God meets us along the way and transforms us—from how we view ourselves to how He views us—as children who belong in His family, worthy of the fattened calf, of restoration to His family, regardless of how we may have mistreated Him in the past. In God’s story, the reconciliation facilitates the transformation. It is a story of the prodigal father more than that of the prodigal son. It expresses the lavish, extravagant scale by which God loves us—unconditionally—the gift we receive for the price of our submission.
It is the same call throughout the scriptures—travel the path of submission. In this calling, one is asked to relinquish his own self-interest and submit to God to find life everlasting. As God called Israel to submission in Deuteronomy 30, so Jesus calls all nations to discipleship in Mark 8:34-35:
"Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life…."—Deuteronomy 30:19-20
"For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it." – Mark 8:35
Conclusion and Application
The practice of spiritual disciplines is merely a path. On the journey to be reconciled to God, the practice of submission puts us on that path. Submission is the physical manifestation of denying oneself, not giving in to our pride, not promoting self-reliance, but rather allowing submission to nurture hearts that would be open to being transformed into hearts of humility. Submission allows us to take the journey back to God, to acknowledge our decisions’ shortcomings when we choose to live away from God’s family, and, recognizing our inherent need for God, to belong to His family; and that a life outside the family of God leads to spiritual starvation and death.
Calhoun (2005) lists the desired outcomes of the spiritual discipline of submission as follows:
- being free from the need to be in charge,
- esteeming and honoring others more than yourself,
- being free from a rebellious and autonomous spirit,
- surrendering and losing your life to find it,
- developing approachability, gentleness, humility, and
- expressing a deep regard for others and what they might have to offer (p. 118).
In the discipline of submission lies a heart of trust, obedience, self-denial, allegiance, subordination and reverence for the One who desires to reconcile all to His family.
The parable highlights the heart that God has displayed to His chosen people from the beginning—His prodigal love for Israel as He brings them out of Egypt, His prodigal promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, His prodigal love to all nations as He sends His only Son, making reconciliation possible. It teaches that God will meet us halfway, if not more, when we submit and take the path back to be reconciled to Him.
In the story of the prodigal son, I find myself as the younger son, concerned about myself and how I’m going to survive, how I’m going to live, and going back to my father so he can provide for me. Like the younger son, even when I have tried to walk the path back to God, it is because I recognize that I need Him for how he can provide for my wellbeing. What I fail to see is the extravagance of the father’s love as I have continued to love myself and looked to God to take care of me.
In St. John of the Cross’ spiritual direction, it is the internal purity of the soul—the destruction of all self-love for the love of God above all—rather than the externals of life’s action that are of paramount importance.
"For God, although he resides in the soul as a hidden God, cannot fully occupy the soul with the lustrous radiance of His love when there remains in it anything of a selfish self-love; a self-love or attachment to anything even to the slightest degree, which excludes love for Him and for His greater glory" (Kozlowski, 1998, pp. 336-337)
As I strive to get rid of all self-love in my heart and submit all of my self, relinquish all my desires and align my will to that of God’s for my life, I am reminded of similar vows I made to my husband when we got married—that all my thoughts, love and desires have been pledged to him in this life. Comparing this allegiance to my marriage, my acknowledgement of Jesus’ lordship in my life demands that all my desires, all my love be submitted to Jesus as well. The parable of the prodigal son reminds me of my shortcomings in my understanding of the greatest commandment: to love the Lord with all my heart, mind, soul and strength.
Like the younger son, I have walked this path. I had pledged my allegiance to God and made Jesus Lord of my life. At some point in my discipleship, I decided to walk away from the Father. Living an immoral life where I took control of my choices rather than choosing to be obedient to God and continuing to be a part of His family, I made my way back to the world with the illusion of having the freedom to make my own choices. Along the way, I broke relationships, dishonored my pledge, severed my ties with God’s family. It was months later when I finally broke down and realized how empty my pursuit has been. I found myself with nowhere to turn except back to God. The heart of the younger son in vv. 17-19 resonated with me. I resolved to go back with the heart that I had nothing to offer God but my sinful life and my broken heart. I would ask him to take me back and face whatever consequences came my way. It has been over 20 years since He took me back. I have been welcomed with the fattened calf, I have partaken of the great banquet and been restored to the family of God. Truly God is gracious: he took my sinful life and made it beautiful. He took my broken heart and made it whole. The privileges I enjoy now, being married to a son of God, having a family of my own, the gift of purity in our relationship, are expressions of the extravagance of God’s love for me. I had nothing to do with it. I only made the decision to take the path back to God—with a heart that was willing to submit and obey.
"…whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven."—Matthew 5:19
Submission has not been an easy path for me. A single mother in a matriarchal family raised me. When I became a disciple of Jesus, my lack of submission showed in the way I treated authority, especially male authority. This weakness showed in my relationships. I justified my lack of submission with scriptures like Ephesians 5:21, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” or with other religious-sounding arguments or twisting of the Scriptures’ meanings. Over the years, I have studied, sought advice and practiced what I thought were ways that helped me develop a more submissive spirit. The study of spiritual disciplines has shown me that I have quite a way to go on this path. As I have grown older, I have come to rely on outward practices rather than dealing with my heart. I have been content with outward expressions of submission rather than true reverent piety towards God. As I reflect on my life, I look back on the innumerable times God has continued to open His arms and welcome me back when I have strayed from submission.
"Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life." – Proverbs 4:23 (CSB)
I have a very humanistic approach to my relationship with God. I tend to deal with external behaviors and evaluate my faith accordingly. As such, I tend to work from the outside and then make my way inside. It is self-reliant. I have found that spiritual formation is not an easy journey. But perhaps the easy yoke Christ speaks of in Matthew 11:28-30 is a place for me to start. I need to look at the spiritual disciplines as the true means to taking up the ‘easy yoke.’ This can start with the practical steps recommended by Calhoun (2005):
- seeking God’s will (no matter where it leads) and doing it
- allowing others to mentor, disciple, teach, correct and guide you
- being a good follower
- laying aside the need to be in charge
- willing and eager obedience to God and those to whom you owe obedience
- being an eager learner, trainable and tractable (p. 118).
"Godly submission is rooted in God’s good and loving intentions for each one of us. … Therefore, biblical submission does not … rob them of their freedom. Submission is a way we allow God’s kingdom agenda to shape our choices, relationships and vocations. And it always works in conjunction with personal freedom" (Calhoun, 2005, p. 119).
Corporally, we could emphasize imitating Jesus individually more rather than organizing activities that only serve to make us look like every church in our community. In practicing submission, our congregation could nurture relationships in the family of God that would promote healthy guidance in our “one-another relationships.” Our emphasis on external, corporate activities tends to drive the individual away from practicing spiritual disciplines as we lack the time and direction to develop them personally.
We are part of an increasingly-connected global environment. Every moment of our lives can be documented or filled with entertainment at the touch of a fingertip. Peace comes at a premium as people tend to want to go to far-flung places, secluded and away from all that civilized life offers in order to find a break from the pace of their lives. Living in a society that moves at such a frenetic pace, the parable of the prodigal son offers the world the peace that counters the prevailing culture—freedom through submission, victory in surrender, a full life if you relinquish everything.
To help us reach the world for Christianity, I believe the story of the prodigal son helps us understand that reconciliation with God is not dependent on our transformation of ourselves. There is nothing we can do on our own to facilitate the transformation of our hearts. It would be exhausting work if it was left up to us. A heavy yoke versus Jesus’ easy yoke. In the same way, sharing with others about God is not about what people ought to ‘do’ in order to be reconciled to God. Rather, we ought to teach of the most important decision that the younger son has taken—that of walking the path that would take him home to his father. God will do the rest.
"Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’…."—Isaiah 45:9
In pottery-making, kneading is a very important first step. After taking clay, water is added to it. Water is distributed evenly but if the clay is really hard, it needs to be soaked in water. Only after this step does the clay become moldable. Likewise, it is only after the believer is immersed in the waters of baptism is one’s heart ready to be transformed by God.
The next step is molding. When a potter makes something, you learn to love everything about the finished product. You love it because you made it—every curve, every contour, every shape, every imperfection. In this way, God already loves us even as He makes us into His finished product—every shape, every imperfection is lovingly formed. Working with clay also produces the best result when one works daily. Working on it inconsistently would return the clay to its harder form thus requiring more effort from the potter next time. So it is that the spiritual practice of submission aims for consistency.
In molding, the pressure needs to be even AND gentle—not too soft, not too strong. The good potter knows that the pressure on the inside of the clay vessel needs to be the same as the pressure on the outside. At times, we may feel hard-pressed but God knows how much pressure to put—inside and outside—as He molds us for His use.
Once it has taken the shape that the potter intended, the pottery is now put through the heating process. The heating process allows the clay particles to stick together. At the end of the first heating process, the pottery is not ready for use yet. It’s formed but brittle. One could compare it to our younger years of discipleship as God gently forms us and molds us.
In order to be useful, it has to go through another heating process that requires more heat. The temperature required during the heating process depends on the purpose or intention of the potter for the vessel. The times in our lives when we feel the most ‘heat’—of suffering, persecution, we are being molded according to God’s purpose for our lives.
Finally, the potter applies glaze to the pottery. Glaze is not inherent in clay. It can only come from the artist. This is the grace we receive from God. It is Jesus’ blood, the sacrifice of His life that covers us so we are reconciled with God. It is not something we can do on our own; it can only come from the Father.
When the potter is done, the original clay is no longer visible—only the glaze. So it is with our lives, when God, the potter, is done molding us and transforming us, it ought to be Jesus who is on display.
"But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed, perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body."– 2 Cor. 4:7-10
It is easy to fight the process of submission, to fight the process of being transformed. But as the clay needs to remain under the hands of the potter in order for the transformation to occur, so we should practice the spiritual discipline of submission for the inner transformation of our hearts to happen. Let us then imitate our Lord’s attitude towards submission, as death was set before him:
"Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it was for this very reason I came to his hour. Father, glorify your name!'” – John 12:27-28
À Kempis, Thomas. (1989). The Imitation of Christ. Gardiner, Harold S.J. (Ed.) New York, NY: Image.
Bock, Darrell. (1996). Luke, Vol. 2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Silva, Moisés (Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. (1995). The Cost of Discipleship. (Munchen, Verlag & Fuller, R.H., Trans) New York, NY: Touchstone. Original work published 1937.
Bruce, F.F., gen. ed. (1986). The International Bible Commentary with the NIV. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg. (2005). Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us. Downers Grove, IL: IVP.
Easton, Burton Scott. (1926). The Gospel According to St. Luke: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Eerdmans Bible Commentary Third Edition. (1987). Grand Rapids, MI: WM B Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Ferguson, Gordon. (1995). The Victory of Surrender. Woburn, MA: DPI.
Foster, Richard & Griffin, Emilie, ed. (2000) Spiritual Classics. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.
Foster, Richard J. (1988). Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.
Johnson, K.D. (2017). Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World. Christianity Today, 61(7), 77-79.
Kinnard, Steve G. (2006). The Way of the Heart: Spiritual Living in a Legalistic World. Newton, MA: IPI.
Kozlowski, Joseph Paul. (1998) Spiritual Direction & Spiritual Disciplines. Goleta, CA: Queenship Publishing.
Levine, A. (2014). A parable and its baggage: what the prodigal son story doesn’t mean. The Christian Century, 131(18), 20-23.
Powell, John S.J. (1978). Unconditional Love. Allen, TX: Argus Communications.
Rolheiser, Ronald. (2014). Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity. New York, NY: Image.
Tobkin, M.J. (1998). The tension between justice and mercy in the parable of the prodigal son. Journal Of Theta Alpha Kappa, 22(2), 26-43.
Willard, Dallas. (1988). The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes
Lives. New York, NY: HarperOne.
Williams, B.J. (2010. Brotherhood motifs in the parable of the prodigal son. Restoration Quarterly, 56(2), 99-109.
Wirt, Sherwood, ed. (1983). Spiritual Disciplines: Devotional Writings from The Great
Christian Leaders of the Seventeenth Century. Westchester, IL: Crossway.
About the author, Cindy Fetherman:
I was baptized in the US territory of Guam 24 years ago. After moving to Denver from four wonderful years in Cambodia, I started pursuing my MABT in the Rocky Mountain School of Ministry and Theology. I recently transferred to Lincoln Christian University and hope to pursue a MA in Biblical Languages as well. My husband and I currently serve in our youth and family ministry and we hope to use what we are learning to serve in smaller churches in the future.
(1 Corinthians 3:10)
A Study of the Statistical Narrative of the International Churches of Christ (ICOC)
-- The Initial Growth Phase --
by Andy Fleming -- Kiev, Ukraine
Today is an important moment for the International Churches of Christ(ICOC). As the movement enters its second generation, understanding our history, our strengths and our weaknesses, has never been more vital. Although God’s word has world-transforming power and he desires for the whole world to be saved, there seems to be internal resistance impeding a gain in momentum and forward motion. I believe that part of this resistance can be attributed to lack of faith and discouragement, and self-focus rather than God-focus. At this moment, in this situation, we need the faith of Abraham as much as ever:
"Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, 'so shall your offspring be.' Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was a good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead." (Rom 4:18-19)
That our movement has slowed in growth is a fact, but that does not change what God is able to do through our faith and faithfulness. What God wants to be done in this world, can only be done through his strength and wisdom.
From 1979 to 2002, the ICOC grew from a single congregation of about 30 members to a worldwide fellowship of 439 congregations and 135,072 members. Although the growth was perceptibly slowing in the latter part of this period, the organizational collapse and loss of membership in 2003 were severe and largely unanticipated by the leadership. The purpose of this in-depth statistical analysis is to examine the available data of this “initial growth phase” and look for trends and patterns that might have served as indicators and warnings as to what was about to take place. Some of the most significant findings of this study can be summarized as follows:
· 1999 was the actual “tipping point” for the ICOC’s growth where the rate of members leaving began an irreversible trend (without radical or divine intervention) to outpace the rate of members joining, thereby showing the events of 2003 as the inevitable outcome;
· 1990 marked the end of global “exponential growth” and the beginning of “linear growth”;
· Certain strategic decisions like “building mega-churches” and “church planting schedules” were made and implemented without including the means for effective evaluation and strategic redevelopment;
· Signs of weaknesses and flaws in the church growth paradigms were showing as early as 1990, but due to the attention given to the ongoing successes of geographic expansion and the planting of new churches, these warnings and indicators were minimized or ignored, and thereby unknown to much of the membership;
· The ICOC developed an identifiable growth pattern that manifested itself across World Sectors and churches of all sizes—these universal growth trends demonstrate that the underlying causes were fundamental and connected to shared strategies and assumptions;
· Although the Los Angeles church was supposed to become the model and solution, it shared the same growth pattern and experienced its own crisis;
· The 6-year plan compromised a number of the well-established “church planting” principles, and in the end multiplied weaknesses and not strengths;
· Beyond the statistical evidence, the similarities between the Boston and Los Angeles growth narratives also demonstrate the outcome of shared strategies and assumptions;
· The focus on numerical growth and expansion above all else, eventually created imbalanced ministry practices where the needs of the church were not the priority;
· The first part of the Great Commission was considered more important than the second part, and so the goal of making new converts held priority over supporting and helping the already converted;
· Some of the fundamental assumptions like “one leader,” “one congregation in a city,” and “one movement,” need to be reevaluated through examination of the Bible’s teaching and example.
This knowledge doesn’t change the facts or the past, but gaining insight into past failures and challenges can help us dream and plan more effectively as we move forward in faith. It’s time for a new generation and new growth phase for the ICOC, and the priorities are still clear: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matt 6:33)
View the entire 39-page article here: http://www.missionstory.com/let-each-one-be-careful-how-he-builds-(2018).html
With Special Attention to "Befriending Death"
by Renee Rheinbolt Uribe -- Bogota, Colombia
“Why the World Needs to Get Ready for People Dying” -- today’s BBC news headlines. I believe that, as believers, we need to take this a step further: “Why the church needs to get ready for people dying.” Not in terms of evangelism, but in the context of the body of Christ. As we well know, we do not “retire” from being a follower of Christ; he calls us to follow him until our last breath. Rolheiser describes this stage in the spiritual path as the season of Radical Discipleship: the struggle to give our deaths away. An important message for the modern followers of Christ.
Definition of “Sanctifying the Ordinary”
Harrison Warren (2016) gives a descriptive definition pointing to a sign she saw at a prominent New Monasticism community house, “Everyone wants a revolution. No one wants to do the dishes” (p. 35). Kinnard (2018) writes, “To sanctify,” means ‘to set apart or to make holy.’ When we sanctify the ordinary, we take the commonplace, regular, everyday actions that make up the day and make them holy acts. We dedicate them to God. By doing this, we change our attitude about the small things”(Lecture Notes). Canlis (2017), in her book, A Theology of the Ordinary, adds:
"Have you ever been struck by the domesticity of the incarnation? When He comes to earth, God places Himself not in a palace but in a family. Faced with a world going to hell in a hand basket, God’s rescue mission is ... to be born? How ordinary is that? It is here, in the confines of a little family, unnoticed by the whole world, the new creation has begun. … This is how God works. This is His rule, not the exception. God enters into creation and engages with us there on creation’s terms. God works with our regular responses to Him in our ordinary lives. Mary’s visitation by the angel was extraordinary—to be sure—but no more extraordinary than the life of a girl who had already habituated herself to surrender, over and over again, to God in her daily life."
As Willard (1998) states, “There truly is no division between sacred and secular except what we have created," (p. 214).
Definition of “Befriending Death”
The reality is, “Many Christians have an inadequate theology of ordinary life,” writes Gene Veith (1999). If we are not practicing the spiritual discipline of “Sanctifying the Ordinary;” we are not truly ready to be followers of Christ to the end. The topic of death is not a favorite topic in our day and age, as Nouwen (1979) states, “Most people in our society do not want to disturb each other with the idea of death” (p. 68). But we are missing out on an incredible opportunity as followers of Christ by discussing this amazing stage of radical discipleship! I find wisdom in Nouwen’s (2015) teaching of “befriending your death.” He shares, “I have a deep sense that if we could move from a denying to befriending our death before we die, if we could relate to death as a familiar guest instead of a threatening enemy, we would be freer of fear, guilt, and resentment. (p. 104)
What is evident throughout the Bible is that people die. The only ones mentioned that did not go through this last “dark journey of the soul” are Enoch and Elijah. Old age is a common theme throughout the Bible as well. The Biblical Narrative is bursting with older people serving God until “their dying day”. [It must be kept in mind that historical, anthropological, cultural, and medical reasons might change the concept of what is “old” between ancient biblical times and now. Even modern societies face extreme differences.] The most common stories we are familiar with are Abraham (Gen. 21:1-5, Rom. 4:19 and Heb. 11:11); Moses & Aaron (Ex.7:7); Joshua and Caleb (Joshua 24:29; 14:6-11) and Daniel (Dan. 1:21). These are the most common example of spiritual “productivity” in the older years. The one that I have heard quoted the most is Caleb’s bold statement in Josh. 14:11-12:
“I am still as strong today as I was on the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war, and for going and coming. So now give me this hill country of which the Lord spoke on that day; for you heard on that day how the Anakim were there, with great fortified cities; it may be that the Lord will be with me, and I shall drive them out, as the Lord said.” (NRSV)
Alternatively, there are many examples of other elderly people, including Isaac, who became blind and weak in his old age (Gen. 27:1) and was manipulated by his wife and their younger son, Jacob. Joseph gave specific instruction in his old age as to what do to with his bones (Gen. 50:25, Heb. 11:22). Moses did not “Sanctify the Ordinary” on several occasions, including getting angry at the Israelites and hitting the rock in anger (Num. 20:9-13). The consequences of this is the denial of his entrance into the Promised Land (Deut. 34:4).
Samson did not live a sanctified life but he did finish his life in an event that later had him put in the list of the faithful in Hebrews 11. He sanctified that moment by using all the strength God had given him to destroy the pagan temple and kill many enemies of God.
Naomi “Sanctified the Ordinary” when returning heartbroken to her homeland; guiding her faithful daughter-in-law through the norms of the day of acquiring food and seeking a husband (Boaz). Referring to her grandson, Ruth 4:15 reads, “He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him” (NRSV). Her “Sanctifying the Ordinary” not only gave her profound happiness in her old age but also eventually led to the birth of Christ.
The book of Job addresses the conditions of pain and weakness better than any other. Yancey (1999) reveals, “the best man on earth suffering the worst, with no sign of encouragement or comfort from God” (p. 68). How did he deal with this powerlessness? As Job. 2:13 narrates, his three friends sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights, with no one saying a word to him. Sitting on the ground, without saying anything is sanctified here. And then, in Job 42:11, after Job comes to a place of peace with his suffering and prays for his friends, what does he do? He invites everyone he knows over to eat. The cooking and serving of a meal is sanctified!
Yancey (1999) reminds us that Ecclesiastes is a “profound reminder of the limits of being human” (p. 161). The author of Ecclesiastes repeats time after time the importance of living the “ordinary” aspects of life with God in mind. In Ecc. 2:24-26, we read that with God’s help we can find satisfaction and enjoyment while eating, as well as in Ecc. 3:12-1; 4;18-20; 8:15-17; 9:7-10. Time after time the importance of the main aspect of life--eating -- is pointed out. Eating is an “ordinary” activity we must partake in several times a day, from birth until death! Eating would not be sanctified, if there were not all the other “ordinary” aspects of the process--planning, buying, cooking, killing animals (a must in biblical times), serving, washing dishes, etc. Summarized by these four words, a lot of work! Along these lines Schaeffer (1971) notes, “Food cannot take care of spiritual, psychological and emotional problems, but the feeling of being loved and cared for, the actual comfort of the beauty and flavour of food, the increase of blood sugar and physical well-being, help one to go on during the next hours better equipped to meet the problems.” (p. 124)
Paul in his letter to the believers in Colossae expresses the same sentiment, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17, NRSV). He writes as well as to the Corinthian believers, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31, NRSV)
Another New Testament teaching concerning “Sanctifying the Ordinary” is found in 1 Cor. 7:33-34,
"But a married man is concerned about the things of the world, how to please his wife, and he is divided. An unmarried woman or a virgin is concerned about the things of the Lord, to be holy both in body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the things of the world, how to please her husband." (NET)
Married believers are instructed to view their commitments, due to their martial situation, as a service to God. It is often helpful to look at the women in the Bible within the context of their Judeo culture. Martha Peace (1997) shares illuminating information on this subject. According to the Mishna, the ancient codification of Jewish law and tradition, the married Jewish woman was in charge of every detail of the running of her household—from grinding the flour to make fresh bread, to raising and teaching the children, making the wool for the family clothes, caring for the extended family, especially her mother-in-law, overseeing the work of the servants, and the list goes on and on (p. 115).
Also in 1 Peter 3:1-4, it is interesting how silence is sanctified, in this situation of Christian women married to non-believing husbands:
"Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing; rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight." (emphasized added, NRSV)
Arnold adds, “People who love one another can be silent together,” (as cited in Willard, 1988, p. 165).
The woman in Biblical times would understand well what it meant to “Sanctify the Ordinary,” since their daily activities would not change, but the heart in which they were carried out would. In the study of early Christian history, so many of these women who had no choice but to “Sanctify the Ordinary” (there was not an option of “forget dinner,” let's go through the drive- through at McDonalds) ended up being involved in the amazing transformation as Christianity spread like “wildfire.” This apparently small and obscure sect of Judaism ended up attracting millions of people from the many races and cultures which composed the Mediterranean world (Latourette, 1975, p. 65). From their homes they were able to influence so many of the pagan world’s “barbarous practices: abandonment of the elderly, abortion, child sacrifice, infanticide and exposure, the degradation of women, gladiatorial combat, cannibalism, slavery and many more social ills (Jacoby, 2006, p. 91).
Barton confirms, ''But, perhaps above all else, Christianity brought a new conception of humanity to a world saturated with capricious cruelty and the vicarious love of death'' (as cited in Stark, 1997, p. 214). The Epistle to Diogenetus expresses the early Christians' sentiment and activity:
"Or, how will you love Him who has first so loved you? And if you love Him, you will be an imitator of His kindness. And do not wonder that a man may become an imitator of God. He can, if he is willing. For it is not by ruling over his neighbours, or by seeking to hold the supremacy over those that are weaker, or by being rich, and showing violence towards those that are inferior, that happiness is found; nor can any one by these things become an imitator of God. But these things do not at all constitute His majesty. On the contrary he who takes upon himself the burden of his neighbour; he who, in whatsoever respect he may be superior, is ready to benefit another who is deficient; he who, whatsoever things he has received from God, by distributing these to the needy, becomes a god to those who receive [his benefits]: he is an imitator of God." (as cited in Camp, 2003, p. 179)
This Christian application of loving one another was felt deeply in the deeply pagan culture of the Roman empire. Stark (1997) declared, 'This was revolutionary stuff'' (p. 212). Christianity taught a different concept than the Roman philosophers, that regarded mercy and pity as defects in a person's character. For example, Plato removed beggars from his ideal state. This was the moral climate in which Christianity taught that mercy is one of the primary virtues--that a merciful god requires humans to be merciful. And in this climate, a deep compassion was developed for the weak and elderly.
“Sanctifying the Ordinary” in Jesus’ Powerlessness Prior to Death
The Gospels can be loosely placed in the genre of “ancient biography.” It is important to comprehend why there are not that many details of Jesus’ daily routines and why there is insufficient data. Powell (2009) reveals that the objective of ancient biographies was “to relate accounts that portrayed the essential character of the person who was the subject of the work. Indeed, the purpose of the biography was to define that person’s character in a manner that would invite emulation” (p. 84). Tenney states that though the Gospel of John emphasizes the deity of Jesus, no other Gospel delineated his humanity so clearly. He also describes this Gospel as “strongly theological, and it deals particularly with the nature of his person and with the meaning of faith in him." He also states, “The discourses of Jesus in it are concerned chiefly with his person rather than with the ethical teaching of the kingdom. Personal interviews are multiplied, and Jesus’ relationship to individuals is stressed” (p. 188).
“Everything He did during His earthly life was holy: he converted them into prayer and his ordinary daily activities had a divine and redeeming value.” (Fr. Rolly A., priest of Opus Dei)
Jesus had to eat, sleep, perform normal bodily functions and other “ordinary” activities, some examples of which are mentioned in passing within the Gospels. I believe the women who followed him around helped him financially, but also helped with some of these “ordinary” and necessary functions always done by women in that culture: cooking, washing clothes, etc. (Matt. 27:55-56, Mark 15:41 and Luke 8:2-3); in other words, ''performed for them those solicitous domestic functions which are the supreme consolation of male life'' (Durant, 1945, p. 564). Also, Jesus lived in weakness when he came to this earth in human form. He was defenseless in the womb, as a baby, as a child and had to live an “ordinary” life, with others doing things for him. Harrison Warren (2016), “The one who is worthy of worship, glory, and fanfare spent decades in obscurity and ordinariness” (p. 16). Rolheiser (2014) succinctly describes,
Up to his arrest, the Gospels describe Jesus as active, as doing things, in charge, preaching, teaching, performing miracles, consoling people. Then, after his arrest, all the verbs become passive: he is led away, manhandled by the authorities, whipped, helped in carrying his cross, and ultimately nailed to the cross. After his arrest, like a patient in palliative care, he no longer does anything; others do it for him and to him. He is passive, a patient. And in the manner he endured that passivity, he gave his death for us (p. 287).
I list some “ordinary” tasks which highlight Jesus’ passivity, not the outright violent acts:
John 18:28--was led by others (Matt. 27:2)
John 19:2--was dressed (in a purple robe) by others (Matt. 27:28 says that they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him and Matt. 27:31 they took the robe off and put his own clothes on him again)
John 19:17-- starting with carrying his own cross (then Simon was forced to carry it Matt. 27:32)
John 19:23--soldiers took his clothes John 19:25-27--gave final instructions for his mother and his dearest friend
John 19:28-29--was thirsty and drank wine vinegar from a sponge put on a stick
Main Text for Exegesis
He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me” (ESV).
After Jesus’ resurrection, he returns to visit many of his followers. The account in John 21 is a beautiful, “tightly unified narrative” (Wiarda, 1992, p. 1), recounting his encounter with his closest friends -- especially Peter. First, he joins them in “ordinary” activities, including helping them with advice for the task at hand, fishing. Then, while they finished their fishing, he starts a fire and cooks a breakfast of fish and bread. “Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast’” (John 21:12a, NRSV). After all these necessary but “ordinary” tasks, he speaks directly to Peter’s heart.
“Peter’s encounter with Jesus by the Sea of Tiberius represents the first substantial conversation that is recorded in Scripture between the two of them following Peter’s denial of Jesus. As such, this may reflect the tension that appears to permeate their reunion” (Poon, p. 53)
He asks him three separate times, “Peter do you love me?” I would like to note loving Jesus is not dependent on physical strength. But Peter is now certain: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” (John 21:17b, NRSV). Jesus repeatedly confirms that love for him implies love for others: “feed my sheep” (vs. 15b); “take care of my sheep” (vs. 16b) and “feed my sheep” (vs. 17b). In this context, how did Jesus show this care for his sheep? In many ways, by partaking in “ordinary” activities: being out with them in the early morning, helping them out with their job (with timely and practical advice), making a fire and subsequently, cooking bread and fish for their breakfast and concluding with a “heart to heart” talk.
The author of Hebrews highlights Jesus’ attitude, which overflows in his interaction with Peter, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet is without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16, NRSV). And “He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness” (Heb. 5:2, NRSV).
As I research this text, it seems used more than anything as example of spiritual leadership. This is summarized in They Smell Like Sheep by Lynn Anderson (1996) “After modeling shepherd leadership, Jesus passed the model on to the apostles. Three times in one brief conversation, Jesus charged Peter (possibly as a representative of the entire apostolate): ‘Feed my lambs,’ Take care of my sheep’ and Feed my sheep.’ By implication he is saying “Adopt my spiritual leadership style” (p. 18). Davids (1990) parallels this text with 1 Peter 5:2-3,“to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it—not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock” (NRSV). He brings up some important points:
"After all, none of God’s acts of humanity was done out of necessity, but voluntarily, out of grace (p. 179). . . . In fact, one could well argue that, following the pattern of the ancient world and especially of Judaism, teaching and leading was for the NT basically a matter of example rather than of lecture or command. Being an example fits well with the image of ‘flock,’ for the ancient shepherd did not drive his sheep, but walked in front of them and called them to follow." (p. 181)
I find there are two camps that use vs. 18 as an example in distinct manners of radical discipleship. “But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (NRSV). There are scholars and Christian writers who emphasis the prophecy of Peter’s death as a martyr, highlighted as the “last act” of radical and extraordinary discipleship. And then others, emphasize the ordinariness and powerlessness of the situation, more along the lines of living the last “journey through the dark night.” Rolheiser (2004) describes, “we are meant to give our deaths away, not just at the moment of our deaths but in a whole process of leaving this planet in such a way that our diminishment and death is our final, and perhaps greatest, gift to the world” (p. 19). Stott (2010) combines both ideas, “John tells us that Jesus’ words had a specific reference to Peter and his death but they embody a principle of wider application to growing old” (p. 109). Calvin in his commentary amplifies the passage as follows:
"Another will gird thee. Many think this denotes the manner of death which Peter was to die, meaning that he was hanged, with his arms stretched out; but I consider the word gird as simply denoting all the outward actions by which a man regulates himself and his whole life. Thou girdedst thyself; that is, "thou wast accustomed to wear such raiment as thou chosest, but this liberty of choosing thy dress will be taken from thee."
The Greek word for gird is zonnumi: to dress, clothe oneself, put on a belt or sash. Calvin adds another layer of meaning to this text, “gird as simply denoting all the outward actions by which a man regulates himself and his whole life.” This brings to mind Francis de Sales words,
"The great virtues and the small fidelities are like sugar and salt. Sugar may have a more exquisite taste, but its use is less frequent. Salt is found everywhere. The great virtues are a rare occurrence; the ministry of small things is a daily service. Large tasks require a great sacrifice for a moment; small things require constant sacrifice. . . In the realm of the spirit we soon discover that the real issues are found in the tiny, insignificant corners of life. Our infatuation with the "big deal" has blinded us to this fact. The service of small things will put us at odds with our sloth and idleness." (cited by in Foster, 1998, p. 135)
In the context of Calvin’s interpretation, Peter had the option to add “salt” to his life daily. Springing from his profound love for Christ, he would care for the sheep, maybe most of the time in small and insignificant ways. But the context of the “being led” and “being dressed” message, I find, Stott (2010) describes as follows:
"Jesus himself taught dependence grows as we grow. . . . We come into this world totally dependent on the love, care and protection of others. We go through a phase of life when other people depend on us. And most of us will go out of this world totally dependent on the love and care of others. And this is not an evil, destructive reality. It is part of the design, part of the physical nature that God has given us." (p. 109-11)
Brother Lawrence, whose impact on believers has been noted for centuries with his teachings on “Sanctifying the Ordinary,” adds, “We begin to need His help with every little thing and at every moment, because without it we can do nothing. The world, the flesh, and the devil wage a fierce and continuous war on our souls. . . . Although this total dependence may sometimes go against our human nature, God takes great pleasure in it” (1980, p. 60).
Old Man in Sorrow
Follow Me (Jesus). . . “Only A Suffering God Can Help”(Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Nouwen (2015), when discussing the theme of old age, uses Van Gogh’s (1890) Old Man in Sorrow to illustrate this stage, “The old man is ‘worn out’, Vincent notes ‘on the threshold of eternity’” (p. 103). Following Christ can lead us to places we do not want to go: excruciating, vulnerable and even haunting places. In the US Evangelical context, following Christ has a message of “doing great things for Christ” and “winning the world in this generation.” I have not perceived a message of preparation for old age and powerlessness. Martyrdom, yes, but not “getting old for Christ.” Nouwen (1979) has a few choice words in this regard, “ Thinking about martyrdom can be an escape unless we realize that real martyrdom means a witness that starts with the willingness to cry with those who cry, laugh with those who laugh and to make one’s own painful and joyful experiences available as sources of clarification and understanding” (p. 72). Even though with Billy Graham's recent death at the age of 99, there could be greater interest. That is why I am highlighting Jesus’ words to Peter “but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” and then Jesus continues with a short command “follow me.” Jesus had just given Peter a full-blown personal example of how to let others do “ordinary” tasks for you with an obvious sanctification “stamp.” As Nowen (2015) so beautifully expresses, “Our lives are not problems to be solved but journeys to be taken with Jesus as our friend and finest guide” (p. 6).
Tagliaferre (2010) provides insight:
"Curiously, one of the last things spoken by Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of John to Simon Peter was, “I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:18) Studies indicate that physical dependence is the great fear among aging steeple. Aging requires that one adapt to physical deterioration and awareness of pending death while relinquishing leadership to future generations. But more than that are the changes in intellectual, relational, and spiritual transitions that also must be accommodated with age.” (p. 257)
In a personal way, I find this teaching extremely helpful as I face the later part of my life (and my husband’s), as well as my parents’ (and in-laws) elderly years. The focus on this paper is not to discuss projects for the elderly but the spiritual call for each follower of Christ as we approach this next stage of discipleship, radical discipleship. To follow Christ’s example when facing the powerlessness that accompanies terminal illness and old age is our ultimate charge. Ecclesiastes illustrates what is coined by St. John of the Cross as the “dark night of the soul:”
Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; in the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets (Ecc. 12:1-5, NRSV).
Those ordinary things in this stage are sanctified, even if someone else must do them for us--if we are doing them out of our spiritual walk and journey. I am someone who needs to hear this lesson. I am renewing a “more productive” time after dedicating almost twenty years of serving God with the ordinary, as a mother and wife. If it were needed to again focus much more on the ordinary, to possibly care for my parents or my in-laws (who all live in the US), if the need were to arise, this would come at a price, leaving our mission work in Latin America. But as I have experienced extreme weakness due to prolonged illness, challenging pregnancies and for other reasons, all these experiences and lessons (past, present and future) are all building blocks to prepare for the last stage of my walk with Christ.
Villacorta (2017) describes this inner struggle within the context of our Western culture, which flourishes within our congregations, “The external forces of a power production driven society are counter to the idea of a spirituality of waiting” (p. 60). He continues, “Since our human nature resists powerlessness it will do most anything to strike back even to the point where our character, spiritual life and relationships with others are compromised” (p. 67). Brunner (1955), when discussing hope, shares, “There is no optimism in the New Testament; optimism is the mark of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” (p. 50); also, “That is one of the fairy tales of our age, --that men need the idea of progress to make them active. What we really need to make us active is love and if we have love we need no other stimulus” (p. 57). Nouwen (2002) illustrates the struggle at hand, “the long painful history of the church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led. Those who resisted this temptation to the end and thereby give us hope are the true saints (or true carriers of Jesus' legacy) ( last words are mine, pp. 77 & 79).
Rolheiser (2014) brings up, “Aging: an art form?”(p. 298). Nouwen does make it sound like that! He also mentions “our death is meant to be our last and greatest gift to our loved ones” (p. 285), and brings up the question, “How can I live now so that when I die, my death is an optimal blessing to my family, my friends, the church, and the world?” (p. 285). If we are willing, following Christ leads us down a road of accepting death, not fearing it, “Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise shared in their humanity, so that through death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil), and set free those who were held in slavery all their lives by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15 NET).
Within my spiritual community in Bogota, Colombia, where I have been an active member for two and-a-half decades, there are many applications of this spiritual discipline of “Sanctifying the Ordinary,” especially in the extreme-illness or in the old-age stage. But many people here have been examples to me, they are actually why I am aware of this application of this specific spiritual discipline. I have been close to many brothers and sisters who have passed away during all these years, but two women who passed away last fall have touched me in an especially profound manner.
One was a woman who was baptized almost 25 years ago, Virgelina. She was already almost 50 years old at the time and, at around 60 years of age, was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. For her last 15 years she had been such an amazing example of a spiritual woman, even when bedridden: devoted to prayer; always willing to love more one more person; soft of heart, always giving her best. She was poor, but so rich in heart. Her life touched so many people throughout the years. At her funeral it was so obvious that her death was a blessing to her family, friends, the church, and even to people who had not ever met her!
The other person is my sister-in-law, who died at the young age of 48. She lived two decades in a lesbian lifestyle and one day called me up and said “I am ready to turn my life over to God.” Soon after this she got baptized. Six months after her baptism, she found out that she an aggressive type of breast cancer. She bravely faced her surgeries and chemotherapies, while touching people’s lives with God’s love at every turn. Every Sunday she would sing out to God in worship with so much enthusiasm! During this time, she helped so many people she knew come to know God and get baptized (including one of her former partners). A month after her total recovery from the breast cancer, it was discovered she had lung cancer (that later metastasized to the brain). As she realized there was no other road for her life but to “befriend death”, her example of radical discipleship was amazing! [Even though she was rebuked by many a Christian accusing her of insufficient faith.] Her last few weeks, others had to help her with dressing, eating and getting from here to there. It was obvious that these ordinary tasks were sanctified! Even though it was challenging for her to lose the ability to care for herself, she made such an effort to thank each person for every little or big thing they did for her. I had the privilege of observing what Nouwen describes as, to “go through the birthing canal,” while her closest family and friends were encouraging to “push through.” To her last breath, she was encouraging others, even joking. During her lifetime we were not that close, but observing her last journey into the “Dark Night of the Spirit” was a gift to me, personally, as well as for hundreds of others. The funeral home was too small for the hundreds of attendees. It was a sad time but simultaneously, so happy! It was as if we were unwrapping the gift that she had given us, through the way she lived and the way she died.
In the way these women lived and died they paved the way that shows, “the effective and full enjoyment of active love of God and humankind in all the daily rounds of normal existence where we are placed.” (Willard, 1988, p. 138). The core teaching of Jesus and his last words to Peter come alive in the lives of Virgelina and my sister-in-law. This teaching of the spiritual discipline in “Sanctifying the Ordinary” is vital as we grow older as followers of Christ; but we must start NOW. Chambers cautions, “If we refuse to practice, it is not God’s grace that fails when a crisis comes, but our own nature. When the crisis comes, we ask God to help us, but He cannot if we have not made our nature our ally. The practicing is ours, not God’s. God regenerates us and puts in contact with all His divine resources, but He cannot make us walk according to His will” (as cited in Willard, 1988, p. 118). But we must continue or return to the “path” of spiritual discipline and realize the joy ahead of us when we are experiencing powerless in the elderly stage of life or due to extreme illness. Remembering the example of Jesus, as Peter did:
"Keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Think of him who endured such opposition against himself by sinners, so that you may not grow weary in your souls and give up (Heb. 12:2-3, NET).
There is joy in depending on others for the ordinary tasks of life, because if our heart and mind are in the right place, we continue in our worship of God. Nouwen (2015) expresses these closing thoughts like no other could:
"Remember: You belong to God from eternity to eternity. You were loved by God before you were born; you will be loved by God long after you die. Your human lifetime -- long or short -- is only a part of your total life in God. The length of time doesn’t matter. Life is just a little opportunity for you during a few years to say to God: “I love you, too.” (p. 48)
(n.d.). Retrieved from http://biblehub.com/commentaries/calvin/john/21.htm
Anderson, L. (1997). They Smell Like Sheep: Spiritual Leadership For The 21st Century. Howard Pub.
Brunner, E. (1955). Faith, Hope, And Love. Lutterworth Press.
Camp, L. C. (2004). Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity In A Rebellious World. Brazos Press.
Canlis, J. (2017). A Theology Of The Ordinary. Godspeed Press.
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Davids, P. H. (2009). The First Epistle of Peter. Eerdmans.
Durant, W. (1944). Caesar and Christ: The Story of Civilization III. Simon and Schuster.
Foster, R. J. (1988). Celebration Of Discipline: The Path To Spiritual Growth. HarperSanFrancisco.
Horton, M. (2014). Ordinary: Sustainable Faith In A Radical, Restless World. Zondervan.
Jacoby, D. (2006). The Letters of James, Peter, John, Jude: Life to the Full. Discipleship Publications International.
Kinnard, G. S. (2006). The Way Of The Heart: Spiritual Living In A Legalistic World. Illumination Publishers International.
Kinnard, G. S. (2018). Sanctifying The Ordinary: 24-7 Discipleship. Lecture notes in LCU course BT 654.
Latourette, K. S. (1975). A History Of Christianity. Harper and Row.
Lynch, E. K. (1974). The Practice Of The Presence Of God. Carmelite Press.
Nouwen, H. J., Christensen, M. J., & Laird, R. (2015). Spiritual Direction: Wisdom For The Long Walk Of Faith. HarperOne, a division of HarperCollins.
Nouwen, H. J., Christensen, M. J., & Laird, R. (2015). Spiritual Formation: Following The Movements Of The Spirit. HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins.
Nouwen, H. J. (1979). The Wounded Healer. Double day.
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Powell, M. A. (2015). Introducing The New Testament: A Historical, Literary, And Theological Survey. Baker Academic.
Rolheiser, R. (2017). Sacred Fire: A Vision For A Deeper Human And Christian Maturity. Doubleday.
Rolheiser, R. (2014). The Holy Longing: The Search For A Christian Spirituality. Image.
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Stark, R. (1997). The rise of Christianity: How the obscure, marginal Jesus movement became the dominant religious force in the western world in a few centuries. Harper Collins.
Stott, J. R. (2015). The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling. IVP
Tagliaferre, L. (2010). Lessons From Sedona. iUniverse.
Tenney, M. C., & Dunnett, W. M. (1987). New Testament Survey. Eerdmans.
Veith, G. E. (2010). The Spirituality Of The Cross: The Way Of The First Evangelicals. Concordia Pub. House.
Villacorta, W. G. (2017). Tug Of War: The Downward Ascent Of Power. Cascade Books.
Warren, T. H. (2016). Liturgy Of The Ordinary - Sacred Practices In Everyday Life. Intervarsity Press.
Wiarda, T. (1992, 04). John 21.1-23: Narrative Unity and Its Implications. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 14(46), 53-71. doi:10.1177/0142064x9201404604
Willard, D. (2002). Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ. NavPress.
Willard, D. (1999). The Spirit Of The Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. HarperSanFrancisco.
Yancey, P. (2002). The Bible Jesus Read. Zondervan.
Christ appears to his disciples. https://www.flickr.com/photos/waitingfortheword/5671097233Chr
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Renee Rheinbolt Uribe was born in Little Rock, Arkansas but raised in Guatemala by medical missionary parents. She has been a follower of Christ since the young age of 13 and a missionary in Latin America for over three decades (serving in Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina and Colombia). Her undergrad degree is in International Relations. Due to her lifelong love of learning, with her three kids now in college, she has gotten her MA in Intercultural Studies (Missiology) as well as a MA in Bible and Theology. She met the love of her life on the mission field, Flavio Uribe and they have been based in Bogota, Colombia for over 25 years. She is currently taking Masters courses at Lincoln Christian University in ministry and biblical studies.
by Dave Pocta -- San Antonio, Texas, USA
When we open our bibles, we often take for granted what is in front of us. For centuries, scribes and scholars have meticulously unearthed ancient texts. They have preserved, catalogued, studied and compared them to accurately provide us with God’s Word. This paper is a very brief introduction to the languages, manuscript history, early translations, and textual criticism that laid the foundation for the blessing now known as the New Testament.
The original twenty-seven books of the New Testament were written in Greek. There are four major stages of the Greek language: classical, Koine, Byzantine, and modern. The New Testament was written in Koine, which was the common, everyday language of the time. Documents in the original language are called manuscripts and copies of them are transmissions. Documents in other languages are called versions as they are translations.
Languages vary in communication style, flow, and structure. We would therefore prefer to possess the earliest manuscripts in the original language to ensure accuracy and avoid the translators’ interpretation. The two extremes in translation would be “word for word” translations which tend to be more literal but often can lose the exact meaning of the text or “thought for thought” translations which attempt to capture the meaning but lose the nuances of specific words. This makes evident the difficulty in translating a translation. (I.e. Translating the New Testament from Latin into English introduces the difficulties of moving across two language barriers instead of translating from Greek directly into English.) The science of studying manuscripts to remove scribal copying errors and obtain the most likely original text is known as textual criticism. The intention of textual critics is to provide a precise original language text that can be used as a basis for translation into any language.
As of the year 2005, we possessed over 5700 hand-written manuscripts that pre-date the 15th century (before the printing press). They are divided as follows:
Papyri 116 manuscripts
Majuscules 310 manuscripts
Minuscules 2877 manuscripts
Lectionaries 2432 manuscripts
Papyri were written on sheets made from the papyrus plant. They were less expensive than the other writing surfaces and were used until the 8th century. The papyri are the oldest remaining witnesses of the New Testament writings. The John Rylands fragment is a papyrus dated to around 125 A.D. and contains John 18:31-33, 37-38. If the Gospel of John was written in 85 A.D. as many suppose, this copy was written only forty years after the original!
As Christianity became a legal and state-recognized religion in the 4th century, scriptoriums appear and more money became available through the churches to start copying the scriptures on parchment. Parchment was made from animal skins and vellum was the highest quality of parchment. It was from this period that we have the earliest codices, Codex Sinaiticus (4th century) and Codex Vaticanus (4th century). Codex Sinaiticus is the oldest remaining complete New Testament but the text is inferior to Codex Vaticanus due to some careless scribal errors. Vaticanus is superior in text form but is missing Hebrews 9:14 and onward. These manuscripts were written in capital letters and are called majuscules.
Around the 8th century, we begin to see copyists switch from majuscules to minuscules (Greek cursive). We also see the use of lectionaries appear more frequently. Lectionaries divided scripture into passages to be read during the liturgy. Different scripture was mapped out for different worship services. The minuscules and lectionaries were often ornately decorated.
Early versions of the New Testament begin to appear as early as 180 A.D. and were prepared by missionaries to help carry the gospel message to people that spoke different languages. These translations bring witness to the early text (2nd and 3rd century) but are used with care as the translator didn’t always have command of the Greek language.
We have disappointingly few early Latin manuscripts even though Tertullian often quoted the New Testament in Latin (he was believed to have translated his quotations directly from the Greek). We do know from Augustine (turn of 5th century) that many people obtaining Greek manuscripts would freely translate them into Latin, regardless of their knowledge of Greek. This provided a vast array of different Latin versions and prompted Pope Damasus in 382 A.D. to commission the church’s greatest Hebrew, Greek, and Latin scholar, Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus (today known as St. Jerome) to create an authorized version for the church. He translated directly from the Hebrew to Latin for the Old Testament (putting aside the Septuagint) and compiled the most reliable Latin translations to compose the New Testament. This version became known as the Latin Vulgate.
Scholars have identified five major versions of the Syriac. The Syrian scholars were energetic and passionate about translating the gospel into their language. Manuscripts have been found from Lebanon, Egypt, Sinai, Mesopotamia, Armenia, India, and China! Other major early translations include Coptic, Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, and Old Slavonic.
As the Greek manuscripts were copied as the church spread for general use, no universal standard existed to protect the process. Variants were introduced almost immediately and spread as these copies were copied. Obviously the early Christians had an extremely high regard for the transmission of these manuscripts but the human factor certainly came into play.
We do see different families of manuscripts developing in different geographic areas. By the 2nd century, the Western text appeared to be the loosest textual family as some paraphrasing was introduced. At the other extreme, the Alexandrian text represents a thorough and controlled exercise in the copying of manuscripts. This is not surprising as the city of Alexandria had a scholastic reputation. It was known for its completeness and lucid readings. When scholars look at the early manuscripts, they are often able to categorize the manuscripts based on these and other families.
How could variants be introduced into the text? There are many possibilities. Some variants were accidental and others were very deliberate. Accidental variants could include misspelling, leaving out words, repeating words, or skipping lines with similar endings. Deliberate variants generally were an attempt of the scribe to “correct” a perceived error. Scholars would sometimes “smooth out” bumpy variants; sometimes by conflation (combining the two variant readings into one) and sometimes by harmonizing divergent parallel passages. This happened primarily in the gospels.
The invention of the printing press reversed the increasing number of variants in the Greek text because now scholars could possess multiple manuscripts. Whenever a hand-written manuscript was copied, more opportunities for human error entered. These manuscripts were spread over thousands of miles so scholars were only able to look at a few of them at any given time. This would make it difficult to analyze them for the best reading. The printing press “froze” the text in time. Human error was no longer a factor. Manuscripts could be collected and printed so that scholars could compare many different readings. If the first 1400 years of textual transmission continued to introduce variants and weaken the text, our last 600 years have strengthened the text. Scholars have developed textual criticism to analyze variants and determine through external and internal evidence which would most likely be original. This process has brought us to a very reliable Greek text today.
Today’s Greek Bible
The first bible printed was a Latin version known as the Gutenberg bible somewhere between 1452 and 1456. In 1514, the first Greek bible was printed. In 1516, Erasmus, the great humanist of Rotterdam, published another version of the Greek text that became very famous. Unfortunately Erasmus relied on 12th and 13th century Byzantine manuscripts that had a poor text. He had earlier majuscules available to him but didn’t consult them! This version of the Greek text became known as the “Textus Receptus” or “received text.” It remained the text that scholars used for 300 years and was used to translate the King James Bible in 1611. Over the last 400 years, many significant discoveries have been made (including the discovery of Codex Sinaiticus) that have shed more light on the early Greek text of the New Testament. Today, two versions of the Greek text are used by scholars that reflect thorough textual criticism and scholarship; the 27th edition of Nestle-Aland and the 4th edition of the Greek New Testament (GNT - published by the United Bible Society and often called the UBS). The text of these is identical but the apparatus varies. The apparatus is all of the notes at the bottom of the pages that reference the various variant readings.
Modern translators of the New Testament use these texts as the basis for their work. We are blessed to have so many scholars that have worked so diligently to bring us such an accurate Greek text!
Aland, Kurt, and Barbara Aland. The Text of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.
Bruce, F.F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1988.
Jacoby, Douglas. How We Got the Bible. 2005.
Lightfoot, Neil R. How We Got the Bible. Third. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003.
Metzger, Bruce M., and Bart D. Ehrman. The Text of the New Testament. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Part 2 of 2
by Kay McKean -- Sterling, Virginia, USA
Don’t people complain about unsalted food?
Does anyone want the tasteless white of an egg?
My appetite disappears when I look at it;
I gag at the thought of eating it!
(Job 6:6 – 7 New Living Translation)
The passage above is one of the oldest scriptures ever written, and what is Job’s complaint? Food without salt!
The book of Job contains a host of hypothetical questions. He was searching for a reason for his suffering, and was left unsatisfied. In this passage, the question he asks is almost humorous. But he brings it before God as an imploring complaint regarding his unanswered requests for clarity. Some take this passage to refer to the conversations that have been going on around Job, meaning that they have been insipid and meaningless. Whatever was on Job’s mind at this point, it’s absolutely accurate to say that food is not as tasty without salt. He refused to eat what had no flavor!
Certainly things haven’t changed through the centuries. Although we’ve admitted the modern dangers of overly-salty processed foods (see Part One – “Salt”), we have also acknowledged the true danger of living without a supply of salt in our bodies. We truly can’t live without it.
As we move through the centuries following the time of Job, we see further reminders of the importance of salt as a part of the covenantal relationship between God and His people:
Whatever is set aside from the holy offerings the Israelites present to the Lord I give to you and your sons and daughters as your perpetual share. It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord for both you and your offspring. (Numbers 18:19 NIV)
Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings. (Leviticus 2:13 NIV)
When God gave the Israelites the instructions about sacrifice, he promised this as a covenant of salt. Salt was the emblem that represented that which was incorruptible and permanent. Therefore, this covenant was one that would last. It was a binding alliance. Salt was also used in the grain offerings to the Lord. So we see salt as the symbol of the eternal nature of God’s covenant with Israel.
God was always willing to keep His promises, but unfortunately the political turmoil that followed the Israelite nation revealed that the people weren’t always willing to keep theirs:
Abijah stood on Mount Zemaraim, in the hill country of Ephraim, and said, “Jeroboam and all Israel, listen to me! Don’t you know that the Lord, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants forever by a covenant of salt? Yet Jeroboam son of Nebat, an official of Solomon son of David, rebelled against his master. Some worthless scoundrels gathered around him and opposed Rehoboam son of Solomon when he was young and indecisive and not strong enough to resist them. (II Chronicles 13:4 – 7)
Abijah, the rightful king, was appealing to those who knew that the royal line of kingship should come from the line of Judah. David was from that line, and the dynasty was to remain with his descendants. When civil war broke out, Abijah, David’s great-grandson, addressed the rebels by reminding them of the “covenant of salt” – an agreement that was to last for all time. Although the rebellion began by the poor leadership of Abijah’s father, he still maintained that to resist his kingship was to resist the Lord. The message was clear: regardless of poor leadership and the mistakes of the past, the commitment to God’s plans were to be upheld.
Salt continued to play an important role in Israel’s history as we come to the time of the prophet Elisha:
The people of the city said to Elisha, “Look, our lord, this town is well situated, as you can see, but the water is bad and the land is unproductive.”
“Bring me a new bowl,” he said, “and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him.
Then he went out to the spring and threw the salt into it, saying, “This is what the Lord says: ‘I have healed this water. Never again will it cause death or make the land unproductive.’” And the water has remained pure to this day, according to the word Elisha had spoken. (II Kings 2:19 – 21 NIV)
Elisha was the protégé of Elijah, who had just been taken into heaven. So the incident with the water was Elisha’s first official miracle before the people. In this case, the salt was an emblem of purification. It brought about the healing of the water. While we understand that one bowlful of salt will not purify a spring, we do know that God can purify it. Elisha was clear in emphasizing that it was the Lord who healed the water.
The Jews weren’t the only ones who recognized the important nature of salt. Later in history, the Greeks exchanged salt for slaves. That’s where we get the phrase, “He isn’t worth his salt.” The Romans gave salt rations to their soldiers, calling it “Salarium Argentum”, which eventually became our word, “salary”. Even today, the traditions surrounding salt are plentiful. The British made it a point to bring salt to a newcomer’s home. Nelson Mandela made this appeal: “Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.”
When Jesus declared that His followers were to be the “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13), He meant it in the best possible way. Salt was one of the most valuable commodities of His time. It was crucial for survival. Jesus calls each of us to see our incredible value. He wants us to remember the eternal covenant that we have been invited into, knowing that God will keep His promise to us. His desire is for us to keep our commitment to uphold His leadership in our lives. He wants us to see that because of God, we are instruments of purification and healing among those that are in our sphere of influence.
Hopefully, these thoughts will make you look at salt a little differently. It’s not the enemy some make it out to be! Otherwise, Jesus would never have said “Salt is GOOD!” (Luke 14:34) When you say, “pass the salt”, consider it as a reminder that you are to add flavor and hope to the world.
Mark Kurlansky, “Salt: A World History” Published by Penguin Books, 2003
A mini-study on Prayer
by John Oakes -- San Diego, California, USA
Let us start with two questions:
1. What is prayer to you?
2. Why do you pray?
Either write down your answers to these questions or at least take the time to voice your answers to yourself.
I. What is prayer?
Think about your prayer life. Is your prayer talking to God or is it talking with God?
Also, what is the purpose of you praying?
For myself, as I grew up as a Christian, the model for prayer was what I saw in a public prayer. When people are praying in public, obviously they talk. If they stop talking, then the prayer is over. So, to me, prayer is talking to God, or at least that is how I viewed it for many years.
But there are two problems with this.
1. Communication is a lot more than words, and
2. Communication, by its very definition, is two-way.
Romans 8:26-27 reads, "In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will." (NIV)
Think about that moment when you communicated your deepest desires and feelings to someone whom you deeply love. If you are a married person, it might be that look you exchanged with your spouse when the two of you first realized you were in love with each other. That look said it all. Words simply do not express our most profound feelings. Prayer is not just talking. Prayer is feeling. Prayer is receiving a message. The Holy Spirit helps us to express those deepest feelings to God. And this is a two-way street. He also communicates God’s deep desire for us. Sometimes in our prayer we need to stop talking. We need to “be still and know that I Am God.” (Psalms 46:10).
There is a spiritual discipline that most of us have not developed, and I will add myself to the list of novices in this area. It is meditation. Prayer may be talking, but it is also meditation. Meditation is not just for our Hindu friends. We need to take it back for use in Christian prayer. David meditated, not by saying a mantra, but by contemplating God’s glory. In Psalm 119:27 he tells us that “I will meditate on your wonders.” In Psalm 77:9, Asaph tells us, “I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds.” This cannot be done while talking. In Psalm 48:9 the Sons of Korah tell us that, “Within your temple, O God, we meditate on your unfailing love.” Prayer that God seeks from us includes meditation.
What is prayer? It is a lot of things. To break it down to just one of them is a mistake, but one of those things prayer involves is communicating on the deepest possible level our feelings and desires to God and God doing the same with us. Let us consider prayer, not just as talking, but as feeling and meditating. Let us consider the role the Holy Spirit plays in this and let us consider being trained to be still—to stop talking and to meditate on God—on his wonders, on his works and on his unfailing love.
II. Why do we pray?
If we have a more complete understanding of what prayer is, then we will have a greater understanding of why we (hopefully) pray. Of course, one reason we pray is that we are commanded to pray. But consider your most valued relationships. If these relationships are truly valued, then surely you do not communicate with those you love because you “have” to. In fact, if you have to, then that is not love.
Here are three much better reasons for you to consider as to why we pray. Our purposes in prayer include:
1. To give glory to God.
2. To align our heart with God’s will.
3. To influence God and be influenced by him through relationship.
Probably the best go-to place, both for how to pray and why to pray is found in Luke 11:1-4 and Matthew 6:9-13. Here the disciples, who have been praying their whole lives, realize that Jesus is the master prayer. Therefore, in humility, they ask him how to pray. In his response to them, we can see all three of the points above.
First, Jesus begins his model prayer by giving glory to God. All honor and praise belong to God and to God alone. My personal favorite example of this in the Scripture comes, not surprisingly, from the mouth of the second greatest prayer of all time—David. It is in 1 Chronicles 29:10-20. “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor.” By this time, David is consulting his thesaurus, as he is running out of words. But he is not running out of reasons to give Glory to God. First and foremost, the reason we pray is to give glory to the God who created us—to the God of all comfort, love, power and dominion, who deserves our eternal praise and who sits in glory in heaven, amen!
Second, we pray so that our hearts and desires can become aligned with God’s will for our own lives and for the world as a whole. Jesus says in his model prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Does this mean that God’s will is not always done? I thought that God was totally sovereign. In fact, God’s will is not always done because there are creatures who have free will, whose wills very often do not align with the will of Him who created them. In prayer, we seek to align our desires with those of our Father in heaven. We offer ourselves in submission. We pray for things, but we expect God to give us those things only if it is according to his will, right? In 1 John 5:14-15 we are told that anything we ask that is in accord with his will we will receive. For this reason, as we pray, we are trying to align our will with his will.
The third reason we pray goes back to the first part of this lesson. The greatest purpose of prayer is to give glory to God. In prayer we align our free wills with God’s will. Both true, but in the end, prayer is two-way communication. In prayer, God presents his deepest desire for us—his will for our lives and for the whole world. But in prayer, we also lay bare our deepest desires to God. It is surely one of the greatest mysteries that the Creator of the Universe wants to be influenced by puny little us. In prayer, we move the universe. Well, it is not exactly we, moving the universe, but it is we moving God, who then moves the universe. In his model prayer, in Matthew 6:11, Jesus prayed that God would “give us our daily bread.” In prayer, we present our requests before the most powerful person in the universe, knowing that if it is according to his will, that he will make it happen. “By prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,” we “present our requests to God.” (Philippians 4:6) Our prayer moves the universe, and this is one reason we pray, because when we ask, we receive. But let us remember a few things about this.
1. First, let us give glory to God.
2. Second, let us first do our very best to align our desires with God’s will.
3. Third, let us remember that our presentation to God of our desires will be greatly helped by the Holy Spirit, who speaks for us in groans that words cannot express. Let us sometimes stop talking, meditate, communicate and let us “be still and know that I am God.”
Published January 9, 2018 on www.disciplestoday.org
by Fred W. Faller -- Burlington, Masschusetts, USA
In the life of any church, there will be times when there needs to be settlement about issues that are dividing people. Typically, the division has already existed in the hearts of those dividing from one another long before it surfaces to be dealt with. In this discussion, I am assuming that both sides of the divide are composed of hearts that are good, albeit differing because of personalities or perhaps perceptions or simply have different ways of approaching the word of God. I do not intend to deal with the issue of division where the hearts are bad: selfish and stubborn. That is for another discussion.
It did not take long for the young church in the book of Acts to run squarely up against a brewing division where Gentiles were coming into the Kingdom of God and the children of Abraham were struggling, with their heritage as the old covenant people, in letting these despised outsiders in.
The first significant confrontation on a large scale takes place in Acts 15, where some of the Jewish Christians were beginning to insist that the gentile converts had to be circumcised and obey the Law in order to be part of the church. It was an "old school-new school" conflict where the old school folks were insisting on traditions and practices that no longer applied under the new covenant.
Without quoting all the significant passages, there are several things worthy of note about how this conflict was resolved:
1. The elders and apostles gathered in Jerusalem. Barnabas was there also and shared, so we see that it was not exclusively the elders and apostles. One could argue that Barnabas was a teacher (Acts 14:1-5) and had earned the right to be called evangelist. There may have been other prominent contributors in the discussion. We also see that by the end of the discussion, the whole church was finally involved (verse 22) but we don't really know at what level and when they came in.
2. Peter opened the discussion with the clear explanation that God had made it very clear that He had accepted the gentiles and had made no distinction between their salvation and that of the Jews. He basically explained the command of God that the Gospel was for everyone.
3. Next Paul and Barnabas shared many examples of how the Gentiles had come to God and what God had done through them.
4. Finally, James stood up to speak. His argument from the Scriptures finalized the resolution. It was a bit of a compromise: the people were to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, sexual immorality, meat that was strangled and from blood. The implication was one of freedom from the law, but with several nods to the law in the message. This is clear from James’ final argument: "For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
5. The BIG issue at hand, circumcision, was not even addressed. The discussion centered on a much more basic problem: that of tradition and law and how it was bound on people in the lives of the new covenant church. Circumcision was resolved by silence, that is, not saying anything about its prohibition, but only saying what should be prohibited, the silence arguing that Jews who wanted to circumcise could do so and Gentiles who did not want to do so, did not have to. If they had specifically prohibited circumcision, it would have tread on the freedom of the Jewish Christians to do so, and by assumption, would have stepped over a line that the Spirit did not want them to step over.
6. When the letter was sent out, the wording shows an interesting sensitivity to the issue:
a) "It seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit ..." -- this was not a set of new ironclad laws like in the law of Moses.
b) "...not to burden you with anything beyond the following ..." -- we are only recommending what we consider to be the minimum burden.
c) After repeating the list of abstinences, the letter said, "You will do well to avoid these things." These are not laws. There is nothing hard and fast here. There really aren't any strict rules, but this would be beneficial to you -– it would be well for you to stick with this. We find later that Paul certainly allowed people to eat meat sacrificed to idols, even claiming (I Cor 8) that knowledge allowed him to do so, and in Romans 12 it is clear that he considered meat eaters "stronger" than those who refrained.
7. Paul and Barnabas were part of the team that took the letter to Antioch.
There is no doubt that Paul's involvement in this kind of discussion was consistent with his teaching in his letters. Paul fought courageously for the Gentiles in the face of the Jewish culture that often dominated the church. Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians...nearly all Paul’s letters would deal with the freedom of being in Christ, apart from the law, and how that freedom manifested itself in the church, and multiple appeals for peace between Jew and gentile converts.
Paul recognized the differences between people: Jew, Gentile, Slave, Free, Man, Woman, New Convert and Mature Disciple. In all his letters, he addresses issues of these differences, not only culturally but developmentally. Here are a few passages that stand out in this area.
I Corinthians 6:12 "Everything is permissible for me" – but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible for me" – but I will not be mastered by anything. The context of this passage is Paul's assault on sexual immorality that was prevalent in the church. What is most interesting is that he is contrasting not what is right and what is wrong, but he is making his argument by saying that even if something is permissible, the challenge is whether it is beneficial. Even if something is permissible, is it something that is taking over our lives? that is mastering us? I believe that Paul is trying to make a very positive argument, refraining from laying down absolutes, even when some of these behaviors perhaps should be absolutes. Instead he is initiating an argument that says, "Even if this were permissible, it is not beneficial. Even if this were permissible, if you engage in it, it will master you and steal your soul."
This kind of thinking threads its way throughout the letter as Paul continues: In chapter 8, he addresses the issue of meat that was being sold in the marketplace that had previously been sacrificed to idols. People knew this and it was an issue in the church about whether this spiritually tainted meat should be consumed by the disciples. Look carefully at Paul's argument about knowledge:
I Corinthians 8:1ff - "Now about food sacrificed to Idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up but, love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know." There is nothing wrong with knowledge. Knowledge is permissible, but knowledge is not as beneficial as Love.
Paul goes on to describe the true knowledge about the meat that is sacrificed, how it has no spiritual portent at all. This knowledge is good and it leads to freedom. But the exercise of your freedom might not be beneficial if someone else is still struggling with their lack of knowledge. Paul goes on to say that it’s possible to do something permissible, that actually destroys another person’s faith. When this happens, we are sinning against Christ (8:12). Paul volunteers at this point to never eat meat again if it causes a brother to sin. This is a stunning attitude about the length he is willing to go to do what is beneficial, over what is permissible.
In I Corinthians 10:23ff, Paul says this yet again! "Everything is permissible" – but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible" – but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good but the good of others. Paul goes on to discuss the issue of meat sacrificed to idols again. He concludes with another startling statement. After strongly suggesting that one should refrain from eating meat if another man's conscience is violated, he asks the rhetorical question:
"For why should my freedom be judged by another man's conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for? So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church or God. - even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good, but the good of many." (I Corinthians 10:29b-33)
The answer to Paul's question is, of course, that my conscience is essentially bound up in the lives of the people around me. They cannot be separated. I lay down whatever it is I am holding onto to serve and meet the needs of others, even if it means purposely restricting my own freedom in Christ to do it.
As in many issues like this under the new covenant, Paul addresses this most thoroughly in his letter to the Romans. In Romans 12, after thoroughly vetting the many spiritual issues, he addresses the church in Rome about the practicals of life in the church. He launches into his discussion with a call for disciples to be living sacrifices, not pandering to the pattern of the world. This was particularly true of the church, that was supposed to be different.
He calls for humility (12:3) and an appreciation for the differences that exist in the church and the need to allow those differences to co-exist for the benefit of the whole, followed by a call to love, honor, service, tolerance and peace (vs 9-21). It’s all about submission, Paul seems to be saying, and he addresses the issue of our submission extending beyond the boundaries of the church in the first half of chapter 13, and then expounds on more examples of love for one another within the church. "Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore, Love is the fulfillment of the Law."
All this is bound up in Paul's view that "all things are permissible – but not all things are beneficial". Even the commandments fall under the guidance of the overarching rule of Love.
In Romans 14, Paul goes into even greater detail of the need for understanding these concepts in the community of believers.
Paul starts his appeal with the simple statement: "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters." Paul acknowledges that there are people in our midst who have weaker faith, who have not matured as much and his appeal is one of acceptance. The "acceptance" is not toleration, but wholesale embracing of the person, even in their weakness. Paul is generalizing here. A few verses later, he will talk specifically about several issues, but here he gives no way of telling who is weaker, but only that there will be stronger and weaker among us.
He then appeals to the two sides differently:
· The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not.
· The man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does. Why? "Because God has accepted him! Who are you to judge someone else's servant?" (Romans 14:3-4)
Paul then observes that each person will stand or fall before God. I am a servant of God and as a servant, God is able to make me stand, and stand I will! Paul goes on to explain that the differences I focus on, that I get so frustrated with, will all be sorted out when I face judgement, where I will give an account for who I am and what I have done. It is God who will judge, not me, so it is not my place to pass such judgment in the church. Stop doing that!
But Paul does not stop there. He says there is an alternative that we should do! "Instead," Paul says, "Make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way." (Romans 14:13) This is a conscious activity. I look at my brother who is so, so different than me, perhaps less mature in certain ways, less knowledgeable, perhaps, and as the more mature brother, I make up my mind to not do anything that would cause him to have trouble. He brings up the foods issue again and concludes the argument with:
"If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love! Do not by your eating, destroy your brother for whom Christ died." (v 15)
This is a very strong echo from I Corinthians 10 – a very consistent message about love for your brothers, overriding your personal freedoms, convenience and conscience.
Then Paul makes a stunning statement, the first half of which I have never heard taught in the churches – ever! "Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating or drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." (Romans 14:16-17)
Paul seems to be giving the disciple the authority to rebuke a brother who would condemn something of which he has become convinced by faith."Let us therefore, make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification." (v 19) There it is again. All things are permissible – we have huge freedoms in Christ, but the focus is on that which is edifying – that which is constructive. Don't destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All foods are permissible, but if it causes another to stumble, it is wrong, it is not beneficial. It’s better to lay aside your personal freedoms and not do anything that causes your brother to fall! Paul wraps up the whole discussion with this idea set, undoubtedly aimed at producing harmony:
· Whatever differences you have – whatever you have come to believe, keep it between you and God.
· The man who is un-conflicted about this is blessed.
· The man who doubts (is conflicted) is condemned if he eats, because he is not fully convinced (he does not have faith)
· Anything in a man that does not come from the full conviction of faith, falls short of God's desire for him and he sins.
Now, it is clear that Paul is using the example of food and who has the faith to eat what, and who is sinning if they eat or don't eat. But I think that in spite of this example, Paul is arguing a much greater cause. He heads the whole discussion with a very generalized argument. "Accept people who are weaker, without passing judgment." The undercurrent of all of it is love and how love compels us to accept without judgment –- to love unconditionally and to go the extra mile, to make up our mind, not to create stumbling blocks, to not distress our brothers with our action. This is the character of Love.
1. In all these passages, Paul develops a common theme, and that is that the good of my brother in my heart. I go out of my way to listen and take into account those needs and I go out of my way not to offend or cause him to stumble.
2. The decision by the apostles, the elders and others in Acts 15 was overarching and totally minimalist. It did not even address the central issue of circumcision and left most of what they could have discussed open to the freedom of believers. When the other churches received the letter they were refreshed, possibly because it said so very little.
3. Paul publically and specifically addressed failings in the church and called for each disciple to take responsibility to accept differences, love others unconditionally, to be fully convinced, and to accept fully the convictions of others.
4. Paul did not leave the interpretation, enactment or enforcement of his rule of love and its implications to a small group of people who would decide for the others. The letter was written "to all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints." When he wrote to the Corinthians, it was "to the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, - their lord and ours." There were probably elders, evangelists and teachers in Rome, and the other churches to which Paul wrote, but these letters are not to them and there is no indication in them that there was specific jurisdiction of any individual or group of people who made such decisions. Each member was expected to grow and mature and patiently wait for others and accommodate others in that process. We know historically that these letters were read publicly as often as they could be read, for as long as people could listen, and it was read to the whole church, not digested and re-taught by an appointed minority.
5. Paul was convinced that the church, as a collective, was mature enough to handle his directives. In Romans 15:14 he stated "I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another." Paul believed that the church was capable of handling his "bold points", to discuss them and respond to them appropriately. He had faith that God was able to work in individual hearts to accomplish his goals.
6. Paul expected them to go out of their way, to make every effort, not to offend others.
The way people read the bible, the hermeneutic and the conclusions that are drawn from it, are widely varied. It is no surprise that in a large church, with members ranging from the newly baptized to those thirty-plus years in the forming, that there will be huge disparities in knowledge, maturity, love, acceptance and sacrifice. So how does this all apply? How do I fully accept others without making judgements on their faith and maturity? How does one keep what he believes between himself and God and allow all others to do the same?
This task is much easier in matters that are largely personal – clothing tastes, ways of dealing with sin, entertainment preferences, prayer habits, fasting, personal disciplines and things like these. Where it gets complicated is where personal tastes manifest themselves in a more corporate environment, for example in the assembly of the church. How are we to know when something that we are doing is offensive, hurtful or not respectful of another's faith? How do I decide when it is time to give up my preferences for the sake of others? Is it the right of the elders, teachers, and evangelists to decide this for the church? When do I know when a person is just being stubborn or has a bad heart? Does that even matter?
In Paul’s writing, he does not answer any of these questions. Why is that? It is a distinct possibility that Paul never had to answer those questions. Maybe the early church never faced them because it was different than what we have developed. Perhaps if we made more of an effort to research and restore the new covenant understandings and assemblies, then the problems of our church would be more clearly answered by the Scriptures – by Paul's writings. As it is, Paul's answers seem almost foreign to our way of life because we are not being what the church was then.
I believe the key is in what Paul taught the church: that he would gladly relinquish his right to things he knew to be permissible for the sake of one who struggled with it. He considered it not beneficial to pursue his right in that context. He considered it not constructive or edifying. I have no doubt that Paul was not opposed to healthy dialog on such issues. He opened such dialog in I Corinthians 8 where he clearly argues that his knowledge about the nothingness of idols was correct –- that eating meat sacrificed to them was permissible, but that is the same passage where he volunteers "never to eat meat again" if it is an issue that remains for someone else. If the apostle Paul lived this way and called others to do so, should not this be the standard for my fellowship also?
How would this work? Paul was pretty clear to the Corinthians in I Corinthians 14:26 – 40 (By the way, the NIV heading "Orderly Worship" was added by someone else). Nothing in the directive of these verses claims to be or fits in the category of worship, as Paul and Jesus saw it. After giving simple instructions, Paul concludes with this authoritative statement in verse 36:
"Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord's command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored."
Why would he say this? Paul says this through the spirit of God, because we are prone to invent our own ways of doing things and rearrange what God has ordained to our own desires. We go out and find teachers who support what we want, and inject the teachings of men into our practices, rather than the teachings of God. Paul is being very strong here. He is basically pre-empting anyone who would teach otherwise and he is teaching it as the Lord's command. Is he not saying that if anyone teaches someone differently they should be ignored?
Paul did not tell the church to organize "worship leaders" and have them "lead" the congregation in some "amazing way" with "vertical worship". Since Paul's vision was that God had seated us in the heavenly realms with God, that there was no need for anyone to "lead us into the presence of God" since we were already there. There were no polished presentations with minute by minute timelines and professional speakers with a time slot, and trained song leaders, or groups of people spending hours hauling around sound equipment for displays of "talent" to entertain the people who have not been properly taught what worship is. There was no claim that this was worship at all! It consisted of saved believers, gathered together, who each had something to give and by giving it, would build the church. In their eagerness to do so, Paul gave simple instructions about respect and process so that it would be orderly, and then he gave that final warning that this was God's command.
After I have had dialog about whether I should consider these alterations to God's command to be permissible, I then have to have the discussion about whether is it beneficial or constructive. According to Paul's multiple addresses on this topic, this is determined by whether it is offensive or hurtful to another person's faith in the assembly, in which case, the mature disciple would restrain their freedoms for the sake of conscience of those they see as less mature. At the same time, they would open sincere dialog about the issues while patiently waiting for each other to mature.
My faith is simple. Although I have never actually seen this, it does not mean that it would not work and I have to believe it would work. Paul had this faith. Shouldn't I be striving for that? My Protestant history, and modern culture, particularly American culture, is driven by the paparazzi mentality, that speaks to our psyche, that we must choreograph everything, that it must be "professional", that it must be "produced" or the small-minded, sound-byte-trained audience will get distracted. We perpetuate this idea that the people are not mature enough to figure this out and we have small groups of persons who figure it out for us. This is simply not the biblical teaching nor practice and we must grow in our faith in this area. The Bible teaches that if we do what God wants, the unspiritual man will come into our midst, see what we are doing and fall on his knees and worship God saying, "God is surely among you!"
Douglas Jacoby - Marietta, Georgia, USA
I remember the night. It was chilly, especially for Florida, and Dad had a fire burning in the hearth. Even as a seven year old, I realized that this spelled certain doom for the jolly man who later that night would squeeze down the chimney. I mustered the courage to ask Dad, 'Is there really a Santa?' I was devastated. Doubts soon began to flood my mind as to the existence of 'the Stork,' the Easter Bunny, even of God himself. In later years I learned that Santa Claus (alias Father Christmas, Saint Martin, der Weihnachtsmann, Père Noël) was merely a corruption of Saint Nicholas, a Roman Catholic bishop of the 4th century. His attributes (red suit, reindeer, residence at the North Pole) derive from a blend of pagan legends with traditions about the saints. Good heavens!
When was Jesus born? Does anyone really know? Early Christians were unsure. Cyprian thought 28 March, Clement of Alexandria guessed 20 May, Hippolytus supposed 2 June. If these early Christian writers (3rd century), who lived close to the time of Christ, had to guess the date of his birth, how is it that we know better?
According to Luke 2:8, the shepherds were 'living out in the fields' keeping watch over their flocks at night.' But what is Israel like in late December, the time traditionally assigned to 'Christmas'? It is cold. It is the rainy season (Ezra 10:9, 13; Song 2:11). The shepherds would not be found dwelling in the fields in the winter season, and certainly not at night. It is therefore unlikely that Jesus was born after Halloween! Whence then the notion that he was born on the 25th of December?
In 274 AD the Emperor Aurelian, influenced by the Persian cult of Mithras, designated 25 December as the 'birthday' of the sun god, 'Sol Invictus' the invincible sun. (In Mithraic tradition, the deity was born 25 December, and celebrated for twelve days. Sound familiar?) In some circles worship of the sun became identified with worship of the Son (see Malachi 4:2). Then in 354, Liberius of Rome ordered Christmas celebrated. This was popular among the Romans, who had already been celebrating the Saturnalia (12-24 December) as well as the Brumalia (25 December) -- times of merrymaking and exchanging presents. Houses were decorated with greenery and festal lights. Gifts were given to children and the poor. Yes, Christmas has pagan origins. On top of all this, it is not even the actual birthday of Christ!
As with the Romans, the Teutonic peoples, too, had their celebrations of the winter solstice. The idea was that the sun god was dying or dead, and that there were certain things one should do to assist it on its way, thus speeding the recovery of the world from its winter torpor. As the days lengthened after or around the 22nd of December, there was great rejoicing and partying. Thousands of years of Teutonic history make their contribution to the customs of Christmas, and these customs spread with the people into Central Europe, Gaul, and Britain. At the Yuletide, special cakes were consumed, Yule logs were burnt as an incentive to the waxing sun, fir trees were adorned with lights in honor of the tree spirits, special greetings and gifts were exchanged, many went a-wassailing, and of course there was the mistletoe, under which one stood and began (only a kiss, mind you) the headlong rush into a night of pagan revelry (1 Peter 4:3)! Remember that all of this was going on long before Christ was born.
What would Christmas be without the frenzied shopping that characterizes our society? Listen to Libanius, a 4th century Roman writer, as he describes the scene in pre-Christian Rome:
"Everywhere may be seen 'well-laden tables'. The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who through the whole year has taken pleasure in saving'becomes suddenly extravagant'a stream of presents pours itself out on all sides."
Yes, Christmas 'spirit,' often sustained by big business to sell merchandise, is nothing new, but rather an ancient and time-honored tradition.
We have seen that 'Christmas' is essentially 100% tradition -- and non-Christian at that! Yet traditions are condemned in the Bible only if they directly contradict the word of God (Mark 7:6-8). Jesus commanded us to remember his death, yet there is no harm in commemorating his entrance into the world. As one of the few who understands the true origins of this holiday, you can now enjoy the season in a more enlightened manner. So be of good cheer!
Douglas Jacoby - Marietta, Georgia, USA
Since the Lord restores our souls (Psalm 23), and those who are spiritual ought to restore the brother caught in sin (Galatians 6:2), bringing back the those who have strayed isn't restoration in the original sense of the word. Keep in mind:
- To bring back the stray is Christ-like.
- This is a process of freeing a drifting brother or sister (Hebrews 2:1) from the allure of the world and bringing him or her back to the fold. This process takes time. It is much more than simply adding someone’s name back to the membership list based on assurances of future commitment.
- It is to be carried out gently (Galatians 6:2). This means caring for the individual, hearing him or her out, not rushing but carefully retracing steps back to the place he or she got off the narrow road. More often than not, those wishing to return to the fold already have plenty of guilt and shame. They need assurance, not an “I-told-you-so” telling off (2 Corinthians 2:6-8).
- Not all Christians are able to bring back the stray. Maturity, experience, and spirituality are essential. This is a pastoral duty, though not necessarily limited to church leaders.
- All Christians are “shepherds” of the flock in some sense. Many congregations contain plenty of mature Christians, and these are the ones who will be most qualified to bring the wanderers home.
- The process itself is somewhat precarious by its very nature. The temptation to over-identify with the lapsed disciple, taking on his attitudes or championing his grievances, is more than some disciples can handle. In some cases, the sin in which the person to be restored must relinquish is still ongoing.
- Always ask, What are the causes of the person’s leaving the church? We must make sure that we are dealing with true causes, not symptoms. Otherwise, after being welcomed back, they may slip back into the same well-worn ruts.
- Remember that God holds the individual responsible for quitting—no matter what (Romans 2:5ff).
- Sometimes it is largely a leader’s fault. Shepherds, through harsh leadership, can scatter the sheep (Ezekiel 34). In addition, sometimes people fall through the sin or lack of forgiveness of another (Luke 17).
- False teaching also has a role in dragging many back to the world (2 Peter 2:1-3).
- Spiritual “starvation” (1 Corinthians 3:2) may also be an issue. Lack of proper appetite may be a factor, but so may lack of proper diet. Milk and meat are both needed. Shallow preaching and or humanistic leadership inhibit our potential to grow. (Still, the onus is on the individual.)
- Always speak to those who were involved in the person’s life before he lapsed. Realize, in addition, that in some cases there are “two sides” to the story (Proverbs 18:17). Make sure you are properly informed.
- Call for additional help as required.
- If someone is not open to returning at the moment, “leave the light on and the door open”! (The Parable of the Lost Son shows the example.) Don’t be resentful or take sinful decisions personally. This only causes us to turn a cold shoulder to them, and it prohibits them from coming back.
- Be urgent to see the person progress, but don’t rush him. Beware of flash-in-the-pan decisions. Give them time to once again implement spiritual disciplines (personal devotional times, to begin with) and to re-integrate the church schedule into their own routine.
- Study the Bible together. Pray together. Expect them to do the same on their own.
- When they have true conviction, they will probably start sharing their faith with their friends again.
- If the lapsed Christian is married, ask the spouse what he or she thinks about the change. The spouse probably has a better vantage point from which to evaluate what is going on than anyone else.
- While not withholding gentle assistance, expect the individual to exhibit initiative. Ultimately, it is not hand-holding that will set them back on the path to the Lord’s heavenly kingdom (2 Timothy 4:18).
In most cities around the world there are not only active Christians, but also a number of men and women who have turned back from following the Lord. We must reach these individuals to “save their souls from death and cover over multitude of sins” (James 5:20).
Shared from www.douglasjacoby.com, originally posted March 1, 2015
Bible open to Psalm, CC0 Public Domain
There is much interest in the Christian world on the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation Movement. Even in mostly-atheist Germany, awareness of the history of this world-changing set of events is high. October 31, 1517, is the day when Martin Luther posted his famous 95 theses on the cathedral door in Wittenberg—the starting gun for the Reformation.
What exactly is the Protestant Reformation? What is its legacy, both positive and negative? Are we, as Bible-believing and Bible-obeying Christians, Protestants? Perhaps most importantly, what practical lessons can we learn from the momentous events which in many ways led to the modern world?
First of all, we should introduce ourselves to the great heroes of the Reformation. The big three are Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin. And of course, there are many lesser heroes as well. Luther, Zwingli and Calvin are all complicated men, with incredible strengths, but also with fatal flaws in their character. Are they heroes of Christianity? By almost any measure the answer is yes. All three showed remarkable physical courage and gave up nearly everything in order to pave the way so that we can worship God according to our conscience, with the Bible as our only standard of faith and truth.
Luther was a man of miraculous resolve. His zeal was for Jesus and for his church. In the face of almost certain death at the hands of the Catholic Church and the Catholic princes, he began a reform in Wittenberg which overturned centuries of dominance over Christendom by Rome and the pope. He created the first translation of the entire Bible into his native German, returning the scriptures to the people. He abolished the most egregious Catholic practices such as indulgences, the system of penances, Roman sacramentalism and reliance on works-based salvation. His discovery from the Book of Romans that salvation is by faith marked one of the greatest turning points in the history of the faith. Yet, his reform did not return Christianity to its biblical roots. His faith-alone doctrine caused him to reject the book of James, which teaches that faith without deeds is dead. His theology was that of the fifth-century theologian Augustine. He maintained a strict church-state structure. Ironically, Luther continued the practice of infant baptism, despite the obvious fact that infants cannot have faith. The Catholic Church, under the influence of 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas, taught a fairly healthy balance between the sovereignty of God and free will on our part. Luther reversed this to a strict predestination, as taught by Augustine. One can argue that although Luther made fantastic strides in restoring Christian practice, he moved theology in the wrong direction.
Most of those whom we would call Protestants actually trace their theology and practice to the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli and the French theologian John Calvin. The two brought about a more radical and thorough reformation than that of Luther. Theirs is known as reformed theology. Most evangelicals are of a Reformed rather than a Lutheran faith. Zwingli headed a church/state in Zurich, Switzerland. He went beyond Luther in removing vestiges of unbiblical practice. Zwinglian worship services have been called, “four walls and a sermon.” Like Luther, he restored the Bible to the common people. Yet his Augustinian predestination was even more thorough than that of Luther. He declared that those who are predestined by God to hell give glory to God equally with those predestined to heaven. Wanting to maintain infant baptism as a means to establish citizenship in a Christian state, he created the idea that baptism is a kind of Christian circumcision—a symbol of membership in God’s kingdom. We can see where this unfortunate choice led. Zwingli was a head of state and a soldier as well. He died in battle defending the Swiss Reformation against a Catholic army.
The greatest theologian and Bible scholar of the Reformation was John Calvin. He reluctantly headed a theocracy in Geneva, Switzerland. It was his Christian Institutes that solidified normative Reformed theology, doctrine and practice. His theological system, Calvinism, made Augustinian predestination standard in almost all of Protestantism. Even if they are not aware, most of our Christian friends are Calvinist, which explains their embracing the once-saved-always-saved doctrine.
Less well known is another Reformation which burst out, beginning from within Zwingli’s movement in Zurich. This “Radical Reformation” featured a rejection of church and state. Zwingli himself initially recognized that the only correct form of baptism is by immersion of adults, but he was unable to accept the implication of rejecting infant baptism on citizenship in his Christian state. Instead, he began to violently persecute these rebaptizers who thus became known as Anabaptists. Catholic, Zwinglian and Lutheran could not agree on much, but one thing they agreed on was that this rebellious Christ-like group must be suppressed. Catholics burned them at the stake, while Lutherans and Zwinglians drowned them. For a time, preparation for baptism of brothers and sisters was really preparation for martyrdom. Literally every one of the early leaders of this movement was martyred for their faith. Christian Europe was not yet ready to accept true Christianity with Jesus as the only head of the Church.
Are we as New Testament Christians Protestants? The simple answer is no. In the International Churches of Christ, our historical roots go back to the Restoration Movement in the United States in the 1820s and 1830s. This was a back-to-the-Bible movement which rejected denominationalism, and specifically Protestant denominationalism in order to embrace Christian unity based on the essentials of the Bible alone. Leaders such as Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone recognized their debt to the great reformers, but did not accept their unbiblical creeds.
How, then, should we think about this, arguably the most important turning point in Christian history? First of all, despite their faults, and they were many, we need to honor and appreciate what Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and many lesser-known reformers did to restore Christian faith and practice. Their courage and zeal for God’s people is an inspiration. Even if we do not wholeheartedly accept their doctrines, we can give honor where honor is due and recognize that, without them, our Christian faith today would not be what it is. Their willingness to lose everything, including their very lives for the sake of the gospel is an upward call to all of us. Yet, although they did wonderful things to restore Christian practice and to restore the scripture to believers, the Protestant Reformation fell far short of reestablishing correct biblical doctrine and theology. These men restored orthopraxy (correct practice) but not orthodoxy (correct teaching). Rather than restoring New Testament teaching, they only went back to Augustine. To embrace a Calvinist/Augustinian predestination is to reject the truth that God loves all and that he “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Their rejection of biblical freedom and their relegation of Christian baptism to a mere symbol are teachings that we must reject as unbiblical and as a stumbling block to salvation.
Of course, there is a part of the Reformation that we can enthusiastically embrace. We can be inspired by the supernatural courage of our Anabaptist brothers and sisters. The Anabaptists were not without their faults, but neither are we. Perhaps you can get into a conversation with a Hutterite, Mennonite, Brethren or Amish friend. You would perhaps be surprised how much you have in common. However, there is one weakness of this movement that we should not embrace. Under the most extreme pressure of persecution, understandably, most of the Anabaptists chose to remove themselves from the world. They rightly rejected worldliness, but took this too far, choosing instead to isolate themselves from those who hated them. Within two or three generations, these disciples virtually stopped evangelizing the lost. As we celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, let us embrace the zeal, vision, and passion of all the reformers, not just the Radical Reformation, but let us take on a renewed zeal to establish the Church that Jesus died for and let us not withdraw from the world, but rather let us make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and surely, Jesus will be with us always, to the very end of the age.
Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978)
John M. Oakes The Christian Story: Finding the Church in Church History Vol I and II (Spring, Texas, Illumination Publishers) Volume III, covering the Reformation, will be available late 2018.
John D. Woodbridge and Frank A. James III, Church History, Vol. II (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2015
Jean Henri Merle d’Abuigne, For God and His People: Ulrich Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation, trans. by Henry White (Greenville, South Carolina: BJU Press, 2000)
Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, ed. George H. Williams and Angel M. Mergal (Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, 1957)
William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman’s, 1996)
T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography (London; John Knox Press, 2006
 Stephen J. Lawson, John Knox: Fearless Faith (Fearn, Ross-Shire, Scotland; Christian Focus Publications, 2014)
by John Oakes
I have been serving as a teacher in one way or another for more than thirty years. It is my career, as a professor of chemistry and physics, and my avocation as well, as a teacher for churches. I have taught the hard sciences as several universities and colleges, as well as teaching for more than 150 churches in more than 70 countries. One of my passions is to help to raise up teachers who can take on the unending task of helping both the saved and the lost to come to understand the Christian gospel. In my travels and in my efforts to mentor teachers around the world, I have made a number of observations, both positive and negative, of what makes for an academically and spiritually well-qualified teacher which I would like to share. I will make these comments, more or less in order as to relative importance as I see it.
I cannot count the number of times I have come across young believers who have passion to be Christian teachers but who have flamed out because of pride. I believe humility is the most important quality for anyone who aspires to be a teacher for God’s Church. Generally, those who aspire to teaching in a Christian setting see themselves as smarter than the average person. Hopefully, this is true about the expectant teacher, at least to some extent, as the gift of teaching certainly includes above-average intellectual skills! However, the tragedy which I have seen repeatedly is that those who see themselves as smarter than others allow themselves to be know-it-alls. Confidence becomes pride. They wish that everyone were as smart as they and they cannot understand how the other believers could be so unwise and so uneducated in the basics of Christianity. They cannot wait to enlighten everyone around them with regard to their ignorance. How could anyone not realize that the teaching ministry is the most important aspect of the work of the Church? Because I have such deep knowledge, what can these less-informed Christians teach me about anything? I will hear what they have to say, but pass it through the filter of my superior wisdom.
The amazing thing is that these prideful prospective teachers do not realize that others can see these symptoms of pride from a mile away. One reason I can list these examples of prideful teacher-thinking is that I have been sorely tempted with all of these many times. I confess that one of the comments I have received in my student evaluations as a professor are statements such as, “he is a good teacher but arrogant when I talk to him in my office. He makes me feel stupid.” Ouch! Double Ouch!! I made a decision many years ago that I will go after defeating this kind of pride with unrelenting vigor. I will leave judgment about how successful I have been in this area to those who know me.
This prideful attitude will have two devastating results. First of all, no one likes a know-it-all. Certainly no one wants to be taught by a know-it-all. More importantly, no church leader will give the “stage” to such a person. And they should not. The prideful teacher will cause more damage to the church than any help they can offer. For a teacher, to not have the opportunity to use his or her gift is a great frustration. It is also a sad waste of potential good for the Church. Mark it down; if you have a prideful attitude about your wonderful knowledge, you will never be a respected and fruitful teacher. You are like Nebuchadnezzar, who stood over his beloved Babylon and said to himself, “Is this not the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30) You have forgotten the admonition of Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:7, “What do you have that you did not receive, and if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you did not?”
Second, and perhaps more importantly, the candidate for teaching who is prideful will inevitably have a hard fall. I have seen this pattern many times. We all know that “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18) We tell ourselves that no one appreciates our gift. We are not respected. This church does not deserve me. I am going to find a place where my gift will be appreciated and used. As a result the gift is either used toward non-Christian ends or the person will end up joining a church which does not hold to genuine Christianity.
2. Having the spiritual gift of teaching.
Some are teachers, but do not have the gift of teaching. As a stop-gap measure, in a church without gifted teachers or in a small ministry or new church, this expedient may be a necessity, and that is fine in such a case. However, ideally, the evangelist will have the gift of evangelism, the elder will have the gift of shepherding, the church board member will have the gift of dealing wisely with money and the teacher will have the gift of teaching. This principle can be found in 1 Peter 4:10-11, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms."
Of course, this raises the question. Do I have the gift of teaching? How would one know? This is a really important question. I do not have “the” answer to this question, but will suggest a few things to look for. First of all, is this what you love to do? Is this your passion (see below)? In your attempts thus far to delve more deeply into the truths of Christianity, do you find yourself making greater strides than many others (not as a point of pride, but simply asking a realistic question)? Is there reason to think that your intellectual gifts are well above average? Do others agree with this assessment?
Certain skills are necessary; otherwise the gift cannot be used effectively. If it cannot be used effectively, then it is probably not a spiritual gift. Intelligence alone is not sufficient. Ideally, a teacher will be a strong public speaker. If you cannot get across what you have learned, what good is it? There are other avenues of expressing this gift. Not having skill as a public speaker is a deficit, but is not necessarily a sine qua non. For example, perhaps you are a really good writer or a person who can reason effectively in a one-on-one encounter. Bottom line, in order for a supposed gift of teaching to be genuine, the person holding this gift must have the ability to pass along knowledge in a persuasive way. If not, then this is not your gift.
3. Having passion to teach.
I have taught on spiritual gifts dozens of times, and have published a book on this topic (Golden Rule Membership, Illumination Publishers). My first advice on discovering one’s gifts is to ask what you love to do. Your gift is the thing you will do even if no one appreciates it and even if you receive no encouragement for doing it. Passion for teaching is an absolute essential for the one who wants to teach in God’s church. There are at least two reasons this is true. First of all, to become a well-trained and effective teacher will require a LOT of training. I would argue that this role in the Church may require more training than any other. Many hours of reading, studying and preparing, well above the call of duty, are absolutely required. Without passion, few will be able to maintain this effort over time. Unlike the first two qualities mentioned above, this quality is relatively easy to “measure.” By our twenties we know what we love to do. You should ask yourself a simple question. Am I truly passionate about teaching the gospel to both believers and non-believers?
4. Having the will and the opportunity to get the training.
We cannot teach what we do not ourselves know. Knowledge does not leap into our brains while we sleep. The Holy Spirit will at times give us the words to speak when we are before rulers (Luke 12:12), but this cannot be counted on in every case. Desire alone is not enough. Jesus did not have any degrees and he was the greatest Christian teacher who ever lived. But we are not Jesus and almost certainly, advanced training, very likely including a post-graduate degree, will be required for the effective teacher in the twenty-first century. It is unfortunate, but nevertheless true today, that the Christian teacher will need skill in English, because the great majority of useful resources are in English. Knowledge of additional languages is not an absolute requirement, but it is very helpful. Some training in history, philosophy, and the natural sciences is very helpful. Some do not have these skills and will find difficulty acquiring them for various reasons. Perhaps they come into the game at too advanced an age. Perhaps they did not have access to education for cultural or other reasons. If this is the case, then it is not likely that this person will become an effective teacher.
5. Being willing to work in a serving position.
This point takes us back to the first on our list—the requirement of humility. Here is the bottom line. To teach is to serve. Of course, this is true of all Christian ministry, as Jesus told us (Matthew 20:26, John 13:13-17). But this is fundamentally true of teaching in the Church. My experience tells me that teachers often do not see it this way. I teach in a chemistry department. In academia, chemistry is known as a service discipline. What this means is that most taking my courses are there, not to be chemists but to be something else, such as a biologist or a pharmacist or a nurse or doctor. I need to accept that nearly all of my students do not share my passion for chemistry. I am there to serve other disciplines.
In Ephesians 4:11-12 we are told that the evangelists, shepherds and teachers are to prepare God’s people for works of service. The way I like to put it, teaching is not the most important thing. It is not the second most important thing in the church. It is not even the third most important thing. However, it certainly is in the top ten and might just possibly be in the top five. If you want to do the “most important thing” then you need to recognize that teaching is not that thing. Your role as a teacher is to provide something to others. Yours is one of the parts in putting together the whole. Teaching actuates other abilities, but it is not that most essential ability and it will not normally be the thing which will be noticed first. The purpose of the Christian life is to know God and to be known by him. The Christian mission is to win as many as possible to Christ. The teaching ministry does not take an up-front role in these things, although it is important to these things. In fact it is essential to these things in the long run, but the teacher’s role is not the most essential one in helping people to have a relationship with God and to conversion of the lost.
Because one of my particular skills is in the area of Christian apologetics, I am blessed to have many experiences which are an exception to the rule I am stating above, but I still need to stress this fact about the teaching ministry. Yours is a service role. You will be tempted to think that it is the top priority, but it is not! A church built out of people, all of whose skill is intellectual, will not be an effective church (effectiveness being defined as achieving the purpose and ministry of Christianity). Evangelism and shepherding and taking care of the physical and spiritual needs of the lost and the saved are more essential. They are higher up on the list. If this is not okay with you, then perhaps you should pursue something other than teaching.
6. Able to take the long view and to hold our tongue—not having an agenda or an axe to grind.
The fifth quality I want to mention is a practical aspect of the humility which is the chief quality needed to be a fruit-bearing Christian teacher. This quality can be encapsulated in one word—patience. Anyone who is a teacher will have deeper than average insight into those qualities required for churches and individual members of churches to grow and be effective in their faith. We notice the mistakes our preachers make. We often cringe when we hear outlandish interpretation of the scripture, especially in public forums. We know some church history and notice immediately why a decision is a bad one. What will we do with this knowledge?
Here is the bad news for the teacher. More than ninety percent of the time, we need to hold our tongue and keep our opinion to ourselves. This is true, both because as I already stated, no one likes a know-it-all, and also because teaching is a serving role. I made a decision many years ago and I must remind myself on a regular basis, that I must bide my time. There are convictions I have that I must keep under my hat for a time. When I am invited by a Christian group to teach them, I need to remember that my role is to do what was asked, not to come with a hidden personal agenda. I do not visit churches in order to correct all their errors. My role is to support what the leaders are doing, even when I do not completely agree with what they are doing.
I have seen other teachers forget this basic aspect of the teacher’s role. They tend not to be invited back. Their skill and their passion therefore find a reduced opportunity to be expressed. My personal ministry as a Christian teacher is somewhat unique, as I do so much traveling and have taught for many different churches. It makes this principle even more necessary to the effective use of my gift. Whenever I am invited to teach for a ministry other than my own, I remind myself that I do not want to leave having created more problems than I have solved. In almost every lesson I teach, I find myself asking whether I should make this or that point, no matter how valid. If it will not help what the leaders in the local church are trying to do, whether or not what I am saying might be true, I must hold my tongue. James tells us that the tongue is a fire and a world of evil that corrupts the whole body. In the context, James is speaking this truth about teachers!
One could use the excuse that the Holy Spirit put it on one’s heart to say such and such. Maybe so, but would the Holy Spirit have you creating havoc in the local church or in the ministry to which you are speaking? Perhaps one time in one hundred it is true that the Holy Spirit will influence us to create a big stir. God’s prophets certainly did this at times. There is a role sometimes for a teacher to stir the pot and upset the apple cart, but this is rare and should be done with extreme caution and only after purposeful thought.
One last thought on this point. As teachers, one of the things we love is when others learn through us and grow in Christ. Their life is changed forever. What a thrill. This is a good thing and it is not, by itself, a sign of pride. However, we need to take the long view here. If you will pursue your teaching over time, you will gradually acquire a stronger voice. What you cannot say and what cannot be heard by your audience now because you are a novice, you will be able to say in ten years. I have been teaching for decades. I have gained a significant amount of respect over time. People can hear difficult teaching from me that they may not have received when I was a relatively new Christian. Because I was willing to bide my time many years ago, I am now able to help people understand and learn from my conviction.
The next few qualities on my list are important ones, but perhaps not absolutely essential. These qualities can be acquired over time.
7. Willingness to think broadly and cross-culturally.
One of the growing problems of our world culture is that, more and more, we tend to live in an ideological bubble. The teacher needs to be able to break out of that bubble. He or she will be teaching singles, marrieds, campus and teens. The teacher will most likely be crossing church cultures and likely even human culture. It is my experience that in order to use their gift, teachers will do some traveling and will eat strange food. A greater than average ability to think outside of the box within which one was raised will be necessary.
8. Broad knowledge combined with one or more areas of specialized knowledge.
As a teacher, I generally must wait to be invited to teach. Why would I be chosen for the task rather than another? My advice to any prospective teacher is that you must acquire two kinds of knowledge. First, you must make yourself the expert in one or two areas. You should choose a topic you are particularly passionate about and dig as deeply into that topic as you can to make it your own. You should nail this topic down so that anyone who needs a lesson on the topic, whether it is a biblical book you have mastered, or a character trait you have studied out or whatever it is, you will be the one they will call on. Maybe you will even write a book on this topic.
The other kind of knowledge you must be prepared with is broad based. You must have one or eventually two or three specialties, but you will also need a little knowledge in a vast array of topics. You must be the Rennaisance man or woman who knows a little about everything. For example, you must know the Book of Colossians backward and forward, but you must have a deeper than average knowledge of all sixty-six books in the Bible. You must know a little history, a little Church history and a little theology. The reason is that you will become the answer person to many and you need to be prepared to give that answer as often as possible. Recently I was asked to do a lesson for a church in Bangladesh on the question of marriage and divorce. I told them that this is not my expertise. They asked me to do it anyway. The fact is that I have studied this topic out quite a bit, actually, and it was a simple matter of taking a few hours to put my material together. It went fairly well. This kind of broad preparation is one thing you must move toward if you want to be a Christian teacher.
I hope that those who have read their way all the way through this essay will find it useful. Presumably, it is because you yourself are interested in teaching. I want to encourage you to pursue this gift. You will find it infinitely rewarding over time as you are able to contribute greatly to the maturing of the saints and to the winning of many more to shine like stars in the universe (Daniel 12:3). If I can be of service to you, do not hesitate to contact me.
Reprinted with permission from Evidenceforchristianity.org
Jesus washes the disciples' feet. http://aathmeekaunnavu.blogspot.com/2012_09_14_archive.html
Chemist examining a beaker at a crude oil processing lab in Arusha, Tanzania. Photo Credit: Mitchell Maher / International Food Policy Research Institute
Graduation Hat Cartoon
Holy Spirit Paraklete Dove, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHoly_Paraclete_Dove.jpg